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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