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Stress may interfere in the relationship between a mother and her preschool child more than the mother's job does, according to a study published recently by experts at the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin.

They conclude that social workers may want to look for "intervention strategies" that can help working mothers cope with stress both at home and on the job. "A healthier and more humanizing work environment could also serve to reduce maternal stress," their report adds.The study was carried out in Salt Lake County by Marge Pett and Beth Vaughan-Cole, both of the U.'s College of Nursing; and Bruce Wampold of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The work took place about five years ago, and the results are being published in a series of reports.

Most recently, the study is the subject of an article by Pett, Vaughan-Cole and Wampold in the April edition of "Family Relations," a national journal read by sociologists, psychologists, teachers and others working in the area of marriage and the family.

The group videotaped 104 married and 99 divorced families in Salt Lake County, all of whom had at least one child between 3 and 5 years old. Sessions took place in each family's home on two occasions, about two weeks apart.

"We videotaped families at that wonderful 5 o'clock hour, just prior to and during the dinner hour," Pett said in a Deseret News interview. The researchers were looking at the way the mothers and their young children interacted, she said.

"Maternal stress, both in the form of divorce and daily maternal hassles, demonstrated the strongest relationship" on the children's adjustment and on mother-child interactions, says the study.

"Divorced and hassled mothers reported a greater number of child behavior problems and engaged in more controlling and less supportive patterns of interaction with their preschoolers than did their married and/or less hassled counterparts."

Pett explained that divorce itself wasn't necessarily the problem, but "rather the stress that accompanies divorces."

Contributing to stress were problems like having a disagreement with the boss, car trouble, a sick child, "irritating daily hassles that everybody experiences."

"Similarly, it's not maternal employment" that makes the difference, Pett said.

"It's very difficult to be divorced and be a full-time homemaker," she added.

Mothers in the study were predominantly middle-class. Few of those who were divorced did not work.

The study found that divorced mothers and their children were significantly more stressed and reported less satisfactory adjustment. Divorced moms had more frequent hassles, lower levels of well-being, and greater numbers of child behavior problems.

However, the article adds, "maternal employment had no significant impact on either children's adjustment or the interaction measures."

So what was the determining factor in the way mothers and children related? "It was how well a mom felt about herself," Pett said. "Whether she was working full-time, or if she was a full-time homemaker, it's how she feels about herself."

Pett said children who were in the study, all of them preschoolers at the time, are about 11 years old today. "Right now we are in the process of writing a research grant, hoping to follow up."