Raising a child provides countless moments of pure joy and deep connection – but as all parents know, it can also bring feelings of anxiety, frustration and helplessness.
Idealized images of parenting in magazine and on social media can compound those feelings. Research shows parents report higher levels of stress, on average, than their childless peers.
Balancing children’s needs alongside financial, family and work-related obligations can damage relationships and lead to chronic stress, raising the risk for depression.
Assuming life is not going to get easier anytime soon, how can parents find ways to enjoy more and stress less? How can we, as parents who are often struggling, help and support our children?
Researchers are seeking answers to such questions, and I’m proud to be one of four who will be presenting at UC Merced’s fifth Symposium on the Child and Family – from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, in the Student Services Building, Room 170. The event is aimed at school administrators, teachers, healthcare professionals and parents; topics include depression in parents, suicidality in children, and mental health adjustment among children in immigrant families.
Parenting can be especially difficult at the very beginning, when infants’ needs are greatest and sleep is in short supply for parents. Eighty percent of new moms experience “baby blues,” or unexplained feelings of sadness or anxiety shortly after birth. For many, these feelings resolve in a few weeks, but roughly one in five new mothers will experience depression in the first year after a child’s birth.
Women with postpartum depression – the subject of my talk – can experience extreme anxiety, sadness and exhaustion, making it difficult to care for themselves or their families. There is no single cause of postpartum depression; it likely arises from a combination of factors, such as life stressors, sleep deprivation, social isolation and hormonal changes.
Importantly, mothers with postpartum depression did not do anything wrong and they cannot just “snap out of it.”
Fathers, too, feel the strain of new parenthood. One in ten dads report symptoms of depression during their partner’s pregnancy or the first few months of their child’s life. This might surprise those who think of postpartum depression as solely a byproduct of pregnancy hormones in women. Emerging research shows hormones change in men over pregnancy too, preparing them for fatherhood. These changes also predict paternal depression.
Beyond hormones, more men are sharing in the responsibly of caring for young children. The stress caused by a constantly crying, colicky baby and sleep deprivation is not exclusive to one gender.
As our children grow, they face their own challenges while we coach from the sidelines. There is nothing worse than seeing your child hurting and being unable to rush over, put a Band-Aid on it and make everything all right. One in five children will deal with diagnosable mental health disorders before age 18, and one in six will seriously contemplate suicide during adolescence.
External factors play into stress and depression. In the Central Valley, approximately one families in four lives in poverty; many live in fear that a friend or loved one will be deported.
The good news is that awareness is growing about the importance of mental health in children and parents, and more tools are available to help families than ever before. More people are talking openly about mental health and seeking support when needed. You should not hesitate to do so if you think you or a loved is suffering.
As parents, we all want what’s best for our children. We must remember to take the advice our parents gave to us – before you can help others, you must help yourself.
Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook is a professor of psychology at UC Merced. For more information, contact Professor Rose Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.