The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Conflicting Parental Roles

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

In this brave new world, the nuclear family is a thing of the past. The “blended” family is the new norm, with parents sharing biological and stepchildren. But researchers hypothesize that these new family forms might bring with them a new set of problems, as adults try to navigate the mires of parenting other people’s children in addition to their own.

Garrett T. Pace and Kevin Schafer at Princeton and Brigham Young Universities, respectively, begin by pointing out that the existing research on parenting tells conflicting stories, as “[p]ositive, negative, and null relationships between depression and parenting are all common in the literature.” “Ultimately,” they conclude, “little is known about how different parental roles are associated with psychological well-being, and few studies have addressed this topic in depth.”

The researchers seek to close this gap. Using a sample of 6,297 respondents from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1970 cohort, the researchers investigate how different parenting roles (step-parent, biological parent, whether the child is residential or not, etc.) relate to psychological well-being. “Specifically,” they write, “we expect that the relationship between depressive symptoms and parenting is dependent on one’s parental role or roles,” with more complicated roles being associated with more confusion over parental expectations and thus more depressive symptoms. Or, in other words, “[p]arents to a coresidential biological child are largely able to adhere to a set of norms, boundaries, and roles that are, for the most part, clearly defined by social convention.”

Using ordinary least-squares regression, the authors of the study used self-reported depressive symptoms as the dependent variable, and controlled for sex, relationship status, time, religious involvement, and various other characteristics. The results indicated support for their hypothesis. In general, “respondents with a residential biological child have lower than average depression scores, whereas those with nonresidential biological or stepchildren have a higher than average depression score.” More specifically, “men and women with nonresidential biological children have depression scores 0.798 points higher than respondents without this role. . . . Adults with residential stepchildren have 0.586 points higher depression scores and those with nonresidential stepchildren 1.527 points higher scores, relative to respondents without such roles.” (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, those respondents who reported themselves never-married or divorced both had higher-than-average depression scores, while the first married had lower-than-average scores.)

Next, the researchers turned to how “multiple roles” interact with parental well-being. They find that compared to respondents with only residential biological children, those with “residential biological and nonresidential biological children, with residential biological and residential stepchildren, and with more than two parental roles have worse psychological well-being. . . . Multiple roles appear to be particularly harmful, increasing depression scores by 1.041 points.” 

The authors close by suggesting that methods that screen adults for depression should take parenthood into consideration, as it seems that the more complicated the parental role, the greater the parent’s risk of psychological ill-health. But identifying depression, though laudable, does nothing to stem the tide of family breakdown that produces such depression in the first place.

(Garrett T. Pace and Kevin Shafer, “Parenting and Depression: Differences Across Parental Roles,” Journal of Family Issues 36.8 [2015]: 1,001-21.)