Social Class Differences in Mental Health: Do Parenting Style and Friendship Play a Role?

It is now well-established that social class and socioeconomic status (SES) are positively related to mental health.  For example, a meta-analysis of 51 studies found that people with a higher SES are less likely to be depressed than people with a lower SES. However, researchers remain unclear about the specific processes that underlie the relation between social class and depression.

In some recent research,
Benjamin Kelly and I investigated the potential roles of parenting style and friendship in explaining the relationship between social class and mental health. We predicted that people from higher social class backgrounds experience a warmer and more responsive parenting style from their mother and father than students from lower social class backgrounds, who experience a more restrictive, disciplinary, and controlling parenting style. We also predicted that a more responsive parenting style promotes the development of a range of socially-beneficial psychological resources such as self-management and social competence, which enable people to develop more and better quality friendships.  In turn, better friendships were expected to lead to better mental health and well-being due to their stress-buffering effects and beneficial effects on self-esteem, sense of belonging, and perceived social support. Our model is outlined below.


We tested our model using a sample of 397 psychology undergraduate students at a large public Australian university. Consistent with our predictions, we found that:
  1. Students with higher social class experienced better mental health and well-being than students with lower social class.
  2. Students with higher social class reported their parents to be the warmer and less disciplinary than students with lower social class.
  3. Students with higher social class reported better friendships social integration at university than students with lower social class.
  4. Students who had experienced a warmer and less disciplinary parenting style reported (a) better friendships and (b) better mental health.
  5. Friendship and social integration mediated (statistically explained) the relation between social class and mental health.
Based on this evidence, we concluded that working-class parenting styles may inhibit the development of socially-supportive friendships that protect against mental health problems at university.

Our single cross-sectional study only provides preliminary evidence, and further longitudinal studies that sample from different populations are required in order to arrive at firmer conclusions. However, our initial results suggest two potential interventions for reducing social class differences in mental health in university communities and, potentially other communities if our effects generalize to these communities.  The first is to increase working-class people’s social integration, and I have discussed this issue with regards to working-class students at university elsewhere. The second, more distal intervention is to alter the working-class parenting style in order to make it warmer, more responsive, and less disciplinary. However, any such parenting style intervention needs to take into consideration the impact of an array of sociocultural factors, and we consider these in some depth in our article.

For more information about this research, please see the following open-access article:

Rubin, M., & Kelly, B. M. (2015). A cross-sectional investigation of parenting style and friendship as mediators of the relation between social class and mental health in a university community. International Journal for Equity in Health, 14:87, 1-11. doi: 10.1186/s12939-015-0227-2