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Parenting Stress and Depression: Who's At Risk And Why?

The Challenges of Parenting

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Updated May 14, 2011

Parenting Stress and Depression: Who's At Risk And Why?

Parenting Stress: Parenthood comes with ups and downs. ©iStockphoto.com

While parenthood brings immense amounts of joy, pride, personal growth and other good things to those with children, it can also bring a lot of challenges, and researchers are finding that these challenges can take a toll. A parenting stress study by Florida State University professor Robin Simon and Vanderbilt University's Ranae Evenson found that parents have significantly higher levels of depression than adults who do not have children. Here are some of the highlights of the study’s findings:

Higher Risk Factors
The study found that certain types of parents have higher levels of depression than other parents. Those who exhibited more symptoms of depression included:

  • Parents of adult children living at home
  • Parents of adult children not living at home
  • Parents who do not have custody of their minor children

Lower Risk Factors
Those who exhibited the least depressive symptoms included:

  • Parents living with minor biological children
  • Parents living with minor adopted children
  • Parents living with minor stepchildren.
(These findings were surprising, as it was assumed that these parents experience the greatest amounts of stress.)

The Marriage Buffer
Married parents also have fewer symptoms than those who were unmarried. Both men and women were found to be equally effected by depression, a finding that actually shocked researchers, as it was inconsistent with previous studies and contradicts the historically held assumption that parenthood affects women more.

All Parents Are At Greater Risk
There is no category of parent, among all those listed above, who experienced lower levels of depression than non-parents, which researchers found surprising, especially because other adult roles, like being married and employed, are linked with greater levels of emotional well-being.

Lifelong Effects
Also surprising was the finding that these symptoms don’t go away when the kids grow up and move out of the house! Researchers believe that this is because parents still worry about their children and how they’re getting along in the world throughout their lives, from the time they’re colicky infants and tantrum-prone toddlers to the days when they’re worried about promotions at work and marital problems of their own.

What's Behind This?
The researchers believe that this is because parents have more to worry about than other people do. We worry about our children’s well-being all throughout their lives, from the time that they’re tiny and dealing with colic, teething and tantrums, to the time they’re dealing with finding jobs and partners and having kids of their own. It’s not that parents don’t enjoy their children or their roles, but the emotional toll of parenting can be high, partially because parents in the United States are often relatively socially isolated and don’t always have support from the community or even their extended family.

"It's how we do parenting in this society," Simon said, according to a press release. "We do it in a very isolated way and the onus is on us as individuals to get it right. Our successes are our own, but so are our failures. It's emotionally draining."

Something that may be additionally difficult for parents is that people don’t always talk about the difficulties of parenting or realize how much support is needed. This study can help parents see that they are taking on a role that’s challenging as well as rewarding, validate feelings that they might be having, and encourage them to seek social support and take care of themselves.

"Parents should know they are not alone; other people are feeling this way, too," she said. "This is a really difficult role, but we romanticize it in American culture. Parenthood is not the way it is in TV commercials."

Here are some important ways parents can handle parenting stress and take care of their emotional health.

Source:

Evenson RJ, Simon RW. Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. December 2005.

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