The ESRI study Growing Up in Ireland has detailed the sometimes dramatic effects the recession continues to have on Irish children. Worrying factors illuminated by the study include the transmission of parental stress, financial and otherwise, into the lives of children, and a decrease in what the researchers referred to as parent’s “sensitivity” to the needs of their children.
The Growing Up in Ireland study tracks the development of almost 20,000 Irish children from all social groups, including their families, teachers and carers. The aim of the study is to paint a more accurate picture of children in Ireland and how they develop in the social, economic and cultural environment. Such information and any findings from the study can then assist in policy formation to give Irish children the best possible start in life. It is carried out by a team of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (the ESRI).
The study looks at two groups of children, who were first visited in 2007/2008. One group was nine months old at this time (the infant cohort), while the other was aged nine years (the child cohort). Since 2007/2008, the infants have been visited twice more – at 3 and at 5 years, while the child cohort have been visited once more (at the age of 13).
The most recent results of the study show that in line with increased joblessness, family incomes and, thus, living standards have fallen for both groups, with almost one third of participants unable to afford one or more of the basic goods and services a family needs.
Most at risk of economic disadvantage were single-parent families, with larger single-parent families exposed to the highest risk.
The latest report from Growing Up in Ireland is titled Parenting and Infant Development, and it showed that higher levels of stress in parents were associated with lower sensitivity of both fathers and mothers toward their children.
The report also highlighted the strong association that was found between stress and depression, as parents reporting with depression also reported higher levels of stress.
Effect on Children
The negative effects of parental stress and depression on children typically manifest as emotional and psychological problems. Such socio-emotional issues occur in approximately 4 per cent of children in households without economic trauma. However, if a family experiences ongoing financial hardship, the rate rises to approximately 10 per cent.
Study author Dr Elizabeth Nixon of Trinity College Dublin said that “…these findings show that even from a very young age, the sensitivity that parents show when interacting with their babies is important for their development.” According to Dr Nixon, the findings also show that parenting does not happen in a vacuum.
The study illustrated that both mothers’ and fathers’ behaviours can be negatively affected by stress, but that children (and infants in particular) can be shielded from negative influences if sensitive parent-child interactions and relationships can be maintained. Babies whose parents were more sensitive in their interactions with their children achieved higher development scores.
One of the more surprising (and worrying) aspects of the results was that the negative effects of poverty can continue even after the parents’ economic status improves. For families whose financial situation had improved from one study to the next, emotional problems in the children persisted in between 6 and 7 per cent of cases.