THURSDAY, Dec. 15, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- The recent recession took a toll on parent-child ties, with parents who were under financial strain reporting that they felt less connected to their kids and kids saying they were less likely to act with generosity, a new study finds.
Researchers from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Brigham Young University analyzed data from a survey done in 2009 and then again a year later of about 500 families in the Seattle area about their feelings of depression, economic stress and family relationships.
The families were mostly white, middle- to upper-middle-class and college educated. The children were young adolescents, aged 10 to 14.
From one year to the next, parents who reported increasing financial pressure were also more likely to report symptoms of depression, according to the study. In turn, depressed parents were more likely to report feeling less connected and less close with their child.
Likewise, parental financial strain and depression also affected the children. Children whose parents were struggling were less likely to say they volunteered, helped their friends or their families, found enjoyment in doing small favors for others, or tried to cheer up people who were feeling blue -- a group of positive behaviors researchers call "pro-social behaviors."
"The effects of the economic strain are present and having an impact on families that we consider middle-class and upper-middle-class," said lead study author Gustavo Carlo, currently a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri. "These are families you'd think maybe aren't feeling the effects of the economic crisis in the way that other communities are, or that might have access to resources that other families might not have easy access to."
And the families interviewed were from the Seattle area, which wasn't even as hard hit during the downturn as other regions of the country, Carlo added. "One can only imagine how these effects are being felt by families in areas where the communities have really suffered tremendously from the economic situation," he said.
The study appears online and in the December print issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.
To be sure, not every parent experiencing economic strain will become anxious and depressed, said Velma McBride Murry, a professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
"If you enter this situation having an increased vulnerability to depression and anxiety, economic strain elevates it, or sets it off to where you are more likely to experience greater devastation than people who are much more mentally stable," Murry said.
But the current study adds to a large body of evidence that cuts across income levels and racial and ethnic groups and shows that economic stress can have a "cascading effect" on the whole family, Murry said. When under financial stress, parents who are used to being able to give their children a cellphone or new clothes suffer mentally when they can no longer do so. As money worries mount -- they're not sure they can pay the mortgage, or the utility bill, or a medical expense that comes in -- parents can become overwhelmed, irritable, short-tempered, depressed and withdrawn.
"Then it erodes communication in the family, and reduces the connectedness that parents have with their children," Murry said.
The kids feel it, too, and their attitudes and behavior can also suffer. Prior research has shown that the kids aren't bothered by the loss of the material goods -- the new cellphone or the clothes -- but by the impact it's having on their family, she added.
"Prior studies have found that kids will say, 'it's not the stuff that I miss. I miss my relationship with my parents. That has shifted and the environment in my family has shifted,'" Murry said.
Parents who are feeling economically strained and depressed should seek out emotional support, whether it's from family and friends, their church or from a mental health professional, Carlo urged.
"They may have to pay some extra attention to work on the quality of the relationship with their child," he said.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on depression.