Parenting Causes High Stress and Clinical Depression

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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. "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."

New Parents at Risk

While the report, offered before, proposed that the parents with minor biological children are in relatively low risk of depression, the research, which tracked nearly 87,000 families in the United Kingdom between 1993 and 2007, found an opposite - the highest risk for depression occurred in the first years after a child’s birth.

Overall, 39 percent of mothers and 21 percent of fathers had experienced an episode of depression during the first 12 years of their child’s life. After the first year of parenting, a mother’s risk for depression dropped by half, while experienced fathers faced only about a quarter of the depression risk compared with new fathers. Although depression risk for both parents dropped considerably in the second year, it remained steady through a child’s 12th year.

Parents who had an earlier history of depression, who had children at a relatively young age or who had lower incomes were at highest risk for a depressive episode during their parenting years, according to the study, published online in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

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Parenting as Pure Joy?

Michael Lewis, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., says that the idea of parenthood as pure joy "was always a bit of a wonderful myth."

Over the last 150 years, he said, children have moved from being an economic advantage to an economic burden in the United States. We used to be able to send children to work in the fields; older kids tended to the babies. When not pressed into service, they mostly stayed out of the way.

With the advent of Dr. Spock, the parenting industry, obligatory music and soccer lessons and a colossal marketplace that propels kids to desire and parents to guilt, children have become the center of the household.

Meredith Small, a Cornell University anthropologist and author of "Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Children," sees cultural forces conspiring to make life lousy for parents.

"Western culture is the worst place to be if you want to be a parent," she says. "If you look at any other culture, people would think that this is nutty."

She said parents have never been as alone as they are in the United States today. In places like India, lots of people sleep in one big house. When the baby wakes up at 2 a.m., six people are available to help. Higher birth rates mean there are older children to take care of the younger ones. Worldwide, she says, 90 percent of child care is done by other children.

Even in many European countries, things are better; working mothers -- and sometimes fathers -- are paid a portion of their salaries to stay home during the first year or more with their young children. Parents get six weeks of vacation and extra time off to take care of sick kids. Good child care is subsidized by the government. College and graduate schools are paid for by the government.

Here, Small said, nuclear families aren't large enough. "Parents are tired, they are overworked, they are extended, they are irritated and they've got nobody to help them."

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How to Manage Parenting Stress?

So short of sending the kids back into the fields, having more babies, inviting the neighbors to live with us or charging the kids rent, what's an overwhelmed parent to do?

Family therapist Neil Bernstein, who has offices in the District and Virginia, offers this simple advice: "Get a life."

For the record, he doesn't necessarily accept the study's conclusion that people with children are more depressed. Still, "What parents need to know and should take away from this is that it's important to look after your own mental health, not to live vicariously through your child," he said.

People should have their own interests and look after their relationships the same way they look after their children. And if it all seems too overwhelming, it's worth seeking help from a professional.

"Being a good parent does not mean being totally absorbed in your children," he said.

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