Mums suffer in large family life

November 20, 1998

Mothers living in extended families, which may help children, suffer unusually high levels of depression and anxiety, research suggests.

The research undertaken at Southampton University raises questions about the appropriateness of recent government proposals to give grandparents an increasingly important role in child-rearing.

Edmund Sonuga-Barke, of Southampton's department of psychology, has been studying Muslim families living in the United Kingdom and, in particular, the effects of living in a family in which three or more generations cohabit. He has found that whereas children and grandparents benefit from the closeness, mothers, particularly those in more westernised families, suffer.

"Everyone benefits except for the mother," Professor Sonuga-Barke said. "The findings turn a lot of ideas about child development on their head. Mothers' mental health is usually positively related to children's adjustment. But here mothers do poorly, where everyone else does well."

The researchers measured the child-rearing attitudes of mothers and grandmothers in 54 extended families. Grandmothers had more traditional attitudes to child-rearing than the mothers, with the difference between generations more marked in families who had adopted more western norms. In these families, mothers had higher levels of anxiety and depression.

The British Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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