Illness-Related Depression in Parents May Disrupt Family Functioning

Parents who struggle with a chronic illness are at increased risk for mental health challenges, particularly depression. Adults with multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disorder, have statistically high rates of depression, upwards of 59%. Because the illness often first manifests in early adulthood, the debilitating effects can impair child-rearing abilities and have a negative impact on parenting. Kenneth I. Pakenham of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia recently conducted a study to determine if aspects of child and family functioning, including responsibilities, role distribution, stress, and stigma, were influenced more by the illness itself or by the accompanying depression.

For his study, Pakenham evaluated 85 adults with MS and their children (127) two times over the course of one year. He assessed them for levels of coping, stress, role distribution and overall adjustment. Pakenham found that the MS had a direct impact on the psychological health of the child but not on overall family functioning. In contrast, the study revealed that the parental depression directly influenced the outcome of the child and family functioning. “As might be expected, the extra caregiving that youth assume when a parent has an illness is associated with stress because caregiving may compete with other activities and tax resources and coping mechanisms; the additional demands are appraised as stressful, and this in turn affects youth adjustment,” said Pakenham.

The study also examined youth stigma and revealed that many of the children in the study concealed their parents’ illness from others. Pakenham said, “The strain associated with managing concealment can be burdensome and lead to guardedness, shame, and impaired relationships.” The findings emphasize the importance for treatment that addresses not only the parent, but the child and family as well. Pakenham added, “Given the mediating roles of youth stigma and stress appraisals of the adverse effects of parental illness, interventions should target these cognitive processes with strategies such as psychoeducation about the illness, cognitive restructuring, and peer support.”

Pakenham, K. I., & Cox, S. (2011, December 12). Test of a Model of the Effects of Parental Illness on Youth and Family Functioning. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026530

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  • Stacy L

    Stacy L

    January 14th, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    It must be very hard for kids to grow up in a home with a parent who not only has a chronic illness but also suffers from depresson too. This cannot in any way be a healthy environment for them to learn and to grow in.

  • Gerard


    January 14th, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    I would like to see a long term study done on this issue, just to get a better idea of how the children who live in these conditions as children fare as they get older. I know that the illness may not become theirs, but for exampe would they be at a higher risk of developing depression later on. And then how does the cycle continue to perpetuate? Interesting stuff here.

  • FRannie


    January 15th, 2012 at 5:52 AM

    How is this some kind of ground breaking study? I mean, it only makes sense to oh, just about anyone, that if one family member is sick then everyone in the house is goign to suffer and be affected. Geesh, sometimes I really wonder who makes the decisions about where this kind of money is spent!

  • DebRichard


    January 16th, 2012 at 5:41 AM

    I grew up with a mom with MS and depression. I never wanted to talk to her and have much to do with her mainly because she acted like she did not want to have anything to do with me. And to add to that I just wanted my friends to stay away too, I was I guess looking back on it embarassed by the situation at home. My dad did what he could but he worked a lot so I came to resent not having that normal childhood that other friends had. I basically just wanted to hide and gorget about the situation.



    January 16th, 2012 at 11:27 PM

    The parent’s illness only become a part f the child’s life if nothing else.It definitely will have an effect on the relationship an therefore on the children themselves.They may even feel neglected at times due to the preoccupation of the parent with the illness.

  • lauraP


    January 17th, 2012 at 4:01 PM

    Who are these parents who let their own lives cloud the lives of their children?
    I think that is pretty selfish. You have to remember as a parent that that means that you put your won stuff aside and raise the kids right.

  • debbie


    January 17th, 2012 at 5:04 PM

    the kids definitely get neglected if a parent has depression-due to an illness or otherwise.add to that the frequent trips to the doctor’s office and possible medications and the atmosphere of the house quickly turns gloomy, something that is not conductive to healthy growth of children.

    special measures need to be taken by such families to not only ensure wellness for the kids but also to save the relationship of the couple involved.

  • A.V


    January 18th, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    Parents are like the pillars of a family.And if a pillar is weakened then the entire structure(family) is in trouble no doubt.I just wish things were simpler than this and some kids did not have to go through all of the things that come along with a parent with a disorder.

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