Parenting Stress and Depression Risks

happy child and mother
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While parenthood brings immense amounts of joy, pride, personal growth and other good things to those who have children, it can also bring many challenges. Researchers are finding that these challenges can take a toll on parents' mental and emotional well-being, which is no real surprise; it's always been known that parenting is stressful. However, we are finding more evidence about how this stress affects us as parents. 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 has been assumed by many 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 affected 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. It is vitally important that parents remain aware of the risks as well as their personal state and take measures to manage stress in ways that work for them, whether this means a weekly date night, regular time with friends or a parental support group, or simply finding a regular exercise routine that can be worked into a busy schedule.

Self-care is also an important aspect of stress management that can be more challenging to maintain as a parent, but not to be overlooked. Things like getting regular sleep (even if this is achieved with the help of naps), maintaining a healthy diet, and getting enough exercise and downtime are all important, and can absolutely be achieved by parents. Here are some important self-care strategies to try, and here's more on the importance of play (yes, adults need to play, too). Finally, take the time to learn some fun stress relievers that you can enjoy with your kids.

If you feel you need more stress management help than this article provides, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor. There are many effective treatments for stress and depression.

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