New BYU Study Examines Stress in Parenting

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 20 February 2015

A new BYU study by Kevin Shafer, professor of social work, explores stress in parenting.

Article Highlights

  • The study shows that stress increases as an individual has more parental roles, with stepfathers having the hardest time managing stress.

“Not all the stress is bad. It comes from a place of wanting to be a good parent. It is hard to admit it is affecting you in a negative way. Parents don’t want to be seen as a bad mom or a bad dad if they admit it is hard.” —Dr. Kevin Shafer, professor of social work at BYU 

PROVO, UTAH

Being a parent brings added responsibilities, especially in a time when family dynamics and roles are often changing due to work, divorce, and busy schedules.

“Parenting is inherently stressful,” said Kevin Shafer, a professor of social work at BYU and coauthor of a study exploring stress in parenting. “I think people want to be a good parent and want it to be a joyful thing.”

Being a parent in a blended family—balancing many roles as a parent and stepparent—makes a person 57 percent more likely to be depressed than those with just a single parenting role, research out of Brigham Young University and Princeton found.

Looking at more than 6,000 parents around the U.S., researchers found the more parental roles a person has, the more likely they will show signs of depression.

“In general, most of the likelihood of being depressed didn’t differ with gender,” Dr. Shafer said. “It was based more on their parenting roles and is linked to the fact that dads are becoming more and more involved in a nurturing role.”

Although research showed similar results regardless of gender, one group stood out. In the “yours, mine, and ours” relationships, stepfathers—often those who have children from a previous relationship, who have remarried and are living with children from their spouse’s former relationship, and then who often have a child together with their spouse—have the hardest time managing their mental health.

Kevin Shafer, professor of social work at Brigham Young University. Photo by Mark A. Philbrick.

For many stepfathers, the stress comes from uncharted territory with managing their relationships with their biological children and then trying to figure out their role with stepchildren. The risk is higher when biological children are not living in the same home as their father.

“Men who have kids who live with their first spouse and then now are in a new relationship with someone that has a kid makes it difficult to know what their parental role is in either situation,” Dr. Shafer said. “They are trying to figure out how to parent a kid they don’t live with and then where they fit in with another child from their new relationship.”

That risk of depression continues when a new baby joins the blended family, making the father’s role threefold.

Recognizing that the stresses of parenthood aren’t necessarily a bad stress, Dr. Shafer said that it is the way parents manage that stress that will play an important part of one’s overall mental health.

“Not all the stress is bad,” Dr. Shafer said. “It comes from a place of wanting to be a good parent. It is hard to admit it is affecting you in a negative way. Parents don’t want to be seen as a bad mom or a bad dad if they admit it is hard.”

There are many options available for individuals who find themselves overwhelmed and struggling with depression.

Assistance through mental health experts as well as Church resources are available to help individuals learn strategies to deal with stress and depression—even when it is only a short-term thing.

Although every family situation is different, Dr. Shafer spoke of tools individuals can use in building their family. Communication, especially when figuring out expectations as a parent and stepparent, helps all involved work together.

“If you are feeling depressed, go and talk to someone about it,” Dr. Shafer said. “Friends and family and professional—they are all good things.”

Dr. Shafer collaborated with Garrett Pace of Princeton to create the new study published in the Journal of Social Work, volume 60, issue 2.