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October 23, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 3

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    Study finds parentsí well-being improves with age, as they continue care for children with developmental disabilities

    By William Harms
    w-harms@uchicago.edu
    News Office

    Although parenting disabled children takes a toll on the mental and physical health of parents, the effects lessen as parents age, new research by a scholar in the School of Social Service Administration shows.

    The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, provides a baseline of information to scholars, as they explore the challenges parents face in rearing children with developmental disabilities and those with mental health problems, said Jung-Hwa Ha, Assistant Professor in SSA.

    Ha is the lead author of the article “Age and Gender Differences in the Well-Being of Midlife and Aging Parents with Children with Mental Health or Developmental Problems: A National Study.”

    “This is the first study to use a nationally representative sample and a comparison group to systematically examine the variability in the effect of having children with developmental or mental health problems on parental well-being,” she said.

    Longitudinal studies are needed to study the effects further, she pointed out. “Future studies should build upon this one by examining how other factors that are known to explain differences in care giving burden in the general population—such as care giver socioeconomic status, race, health characteristics, social support and community resources, influence the extent to which caring for disabled children affects parents’ physical and mental health,” she said.

    The impact of parenting children with disabilities is large and long-term. In addition to the financial challenges, parents face an emotional burden of dealing with the stigma of having a disabled child as well as the disappointment of knowing their children will not achieve normal adult milestones. Additionally, parents worry about who will care for their children when they no longer are able.

    In order to study the effects on parents, Ha and her team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined data gathered for the Study on Midlife in the United States, which focused on a nationally representative sample of people ages 25 to 74. Then they compared 1,393 parents who did not have children with disabilities with 163 parents of children with developmental disabilities, and 133 parents with children with mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

    They asked the parents questions about their day-to-day attitudes (whether they felt nervous or worthless), their psychological well-being and their physical health. They also did a comparison with a set of about 1,393 parents with non-disabled children.

    Although parents raising disabled children report a more negative affect on their well-being as well as more physical and mental health problems than parents of non-disabled children, the gap between the two sets of parents narrows as the parents age.

    “Over time, parents adjust to the stress of their child’s disability as they develop skills to better respond to their family circumstances,” Ha said.

    The study also looked at gender differences, yet the results did not find significant differences between fathers and mothers in the effects of parenting children with disabilities. Although more of the burden of parenting usually fell on mothers, the mothers may be likely to be part of support networks and also more likely to find satisfaction in their role of parenting, the study explained.

    Joining Ha in the study were Jinkuk Hong, associate research scientist at the Waisman Center; Marsha Mailick Seltzer, the Vaughan Bascom professor and director of the Waisman Center; and Jan Greenberg, Professor in the School of Social Work of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.