ESRI: Stress of recession damaging to families

The trickle-down effect of a recession on children can mean poorer quality relationships with their mums and dads, particularly where parents feel the mental strain of trying to make ends meet.

A report, published today, on the lives of children who were three-years-old at the height of the great recession, found considerable variation in the extent to which families experienced changes in their economic circumstances from 2008 to 2011.

However, by far the greatest impact of economic strain was having to cut back on basic necessities and not being able to afford luxuries, as well as being in arrears on rent or mortgage and utility bills.

Interestingly, fathers associated their inability to afford luxuries with higher levels of warmth.

“It was a small effect, but it raises an interesting question — what is it that lies behind positive parent/child interactions,” said the study’s lead author Dr Elizabeth Nixon.

“We did find in families where fathers had to cut back that they were having more rewarding interactions with their children. Maybe it’s because they were there more and were playing with the children, as opposed to buying them things.”

While some parents were better able to cope with the recession, others were more vulnerable.

For instance, among families in arrears on rent or mortgage payments, the proportion of mothers classified as depressed was more than double (24%) those not in arrears (10%).

The strongest economic predictor of fathers’ depressive symptoms was being in arrears on utility bills.

The findings of the report, the latest from the Growing up in Ireland series, reveal the negative impact on the child/parent relationship where depressive symptoms or marital dissatisfaction are the among the spillover effects of economic hardship.

Where parents were not coping, interactions with children could be more hostile.

“What our research shows is the psychological effect of economic strain. We need to go beyond saying ‘recession is bad’. We need to understand the trickle-down effect it has on children’s development,” Dr Nixon said.

The report found that children’s socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties were greater where the mother experienced depressive symptoms.

Dr Nixon said the report’s findings suggest that parents should be supported during times of hardship.

“Interventions to support the wellbeing of parents are likely to be particularly important when they are facing economic stress,” she said.

“As well as dealing with the underlying problem (eg the loss of employment or drop in income), the research indicates that supports for parents’ mental health are also likely to facilitate positive parenting.”

The findings of the report indicate that the strongest predictors of economic strain were being behind with mortgage/rent and utility bills and having to cut back on basic necessities.

The report says if the policy objective is to minimise the impact of economic strain on children and their parents, “actions to safeguard these basic necessities for families should be a priority”.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said the findings “highlight the need to address economic strain in families and support parental mental health”.

She said those were among the issues “that are core to ‘First Five’, Ireland’s first cross-Departmental strategy to support babies, young children and their families, being led by my Department.

The Effects of Economic Recession and Family Stress on the Adjustment of 3-year-olds in Ireland: is published on

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