New research links support and health for undergraduate
College is challenging. Parenting is challenging. Those who succeed at doing both at the same time tend to have help from strong family and friend support networks. Research now available highlights the role of social support and stress in the physical health of college students who are also parents.
Nearly 5 million undergraduate students are also parents in the United States. Of those student parents, only 26 percent earn their degree within six years. Many of the others leave university for lower paying jobs. Some reasons for leaving college early include not having a strong enough support system including friends and family that can pitch in and help when the student parent needs to stay late on campus or when a child is sick. Others cannot overcome the financial burden of paying for college while raising a child. Many student parents work extra jobs when they are not in class to make ends meet. Many suffer from significant stress that is compounded by juggling two major life transitions at once: becoming a college student and becoming a new parent.
Drs. Eve Gerrard and Ron Roberts found that some student parents question why they are putting themselves and their families through this stress and whether a college degree is worth it. Since being a student parent often means not doing either role to the best of their abilities, some student parents wonder whether the sacrifices they are making to their education and their children will pay off in the end.
As communication scientists, they recognize the importance of a strong social support network in handling and overcoming challenges in any life stage, but especially when attending college while raising young children. Social network members like family, friends, and others who care can offer instrumental support like parenting advice or study tips. They can also offer tangible support like tuition money or a place to stay. When people receive enough good support, they are better off physically, mentally, and socially.
In a recent study from the Family Communication and Relationships Lab published in Health Communication, Dr. Kristina Scharp, and I set out to discover how the costs of seeking support influence the health of undergraduate student parents. Costs of seeking support can be both intrapersonal and interpersonal and occur when people feel stigmatized or distressed about asking for help. It is easy to imagine a new parent who wants to appear confident and like they have they have everything under control may not want to ask for help. Having to ask for help may be interpersonally costly if it lowers the person’s self-esteem or makes them worry about their ability to solve problems. Interpersonal support costs happen when the person thinks they will look weak or incompetent to others, or they worry about how others will react to their request for help. For example, if new parents believe they should be able to handle the stress of a new baby and should naturally know how to be “good parents,” they may fear that others will look down on them for needing help. We found that the higher the costs student parents reported they felt, the worse their physical health. Student parents who perceived high costs to seeking support had more headaches, slept less, and exercised less than parents who reported lower costs.
Second, we wanted to understand how the amount of support a student parent desired influenced his/her physical health. People differ in how much support they want from their networks. Here we examined a type of support that relies on communication: social presence support. Social presence support captures the amount of support a person believes they have available to them. When a sibling tells a new parent “I am here for you if you need anything,” they are providing social presence support. Social presence support is about knowing support is available if needed, not about how much is given. Social presence was not directly associated with poor physical health in our study, but it was linked to parenting stress suggesting that desiring more social presence support than a student parent is getting contributes to higher parenting stress.
Finally, we tested whether college-based stress and parenting-based stress negatively influenced the physical health of student parents. Like we expected the student parents in our study who experienced high levels of parenting and academic stress had worse health outcomes. For example, these parents were sleeping and exercising less than their peers who did not experience such high stress.
The major takeaway from our study is that friends and family can make a significant difference in the lives of college students who are also parents. Student parents who feel supported and are not afraid to ask for help are less stressed and in better physical health. Friends and family can remind student parents often that they are there for them and that it is normal to not have everything under control and figured out all the time. Friends and family can explicitly say that the student parent is not expected to be a perfect parent or raise his/her children on her/his own. As the saying goes, it takes a village. This is especially true when raising a child and earning a college degree.