Growing up in a household with a parent who has a chronic illness can be very difficult for a child. However, research typically focuses on ill children, rather than ill parents and the effect their illness may have on their children.
A group of researchers led by Neda Razaz published a new paper titled Children of chronically ill parents: Relationship between parental multiple sclerosis and childhood developmental health.
By linking several population-based health and education databases in British Columbia the authors were able to explore the association between parental multiple sclerosis (MS) and MS-related clinical factors on children’s developmental outcomes, as measured by the EDI.
MS-related clinical factors:
- Mental health comorbidity
- Physical comorbidity
- Duration of parental MS
- Disability level
To isolate the impact of parental MS and MS-related clinical factors, the authors took into account a variety of child and parent demographic factors.
- Child’s sex
- Child’s first language at home (English vs other)
- Age of the child at the time of the EDI collection
- Parental age at the time of child’s birth
A total sample of 783 children who had a parent with MS was compared with a group of 2,988 children who had parents without MS.
What did they find?
- Parents affected by MS were on average 1.5 years older and were more likely to be English speakers
- Similar frequency of physical comorbidity
- Higher frequency of mental health morbidity among parents with MS (39.6% vs 22.2%)
Parental MS alone did not increase children’s risk of vulnerability on the EDI. It was the existence of mental health morbidity or physical health comorbidity in the mothers with MS which was associated with a higher risk of vulnerability on the language and cognitive development and the physical health and well-being domains.
For children of fathers with MS who had a co-existing mental health condition, there was an elevated risk of vulnerability on the emotional maturity domain.
Children whose parent had moderate to severe MS had a higher risk of vulnerability on the physical health and well-being and language and cognitive development domains of the EDI compared with children whose parent had less severe MS.
The findings were not all bad, however. Children of mothers with MS had lower risk of vulnerability on the social competence domain.
What does it mean?
Although having a parent with MS poses additional challenges for children, these are largely dependent on the severity of the parent’s disease and the existence of any co-occurring physical or mental issues. Children may also see some benefits, with a lower risk of vulnerability on the social competence domain.
This lower risk may be because these children must take on more household duties, which may result in increased pro-social behaviour. Additional studies have shown children with a parent with MS describe having higher personal competence, feeling more empathetic, and more “grown-up”.