Method. Six databases (ASSIA, MEDLINE, PsychINFO, Scopus, Social Policy and Practice, and Social Services Abstracts) were searched using terms relating to parents, learning difficulties, and social networks. The titles, abstracts, and where appropriate, full texts of the articles (n=549) were screened for eligibility. Further articles were located through hand searching reference lists and relevant journals. Articles selected for inclusion were: English language, peer reviewed, included PWLD as participants, and explored the role of ISN in relation to parenting. No restrictions were placed on publication date or methodology. Data extraction included information about study design, participants, location, analytical strategy and outcomes of ISN support. Qualitative data were separately coded and analyzed thematically. Methodological quality was assessed using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT).
Results. Twenty articles (eight qualitative, ten quantitative, and two mixed-methods) were included in the review. Studies were conducted in Australia, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US and published between 1989 and 2019. Qualitative data indicated that PWLD perceived ISN to be beneficial if they enabled them to learn new parenting skills, navigate services, gain practical help with parenting, and if the network supported their mental and social well-being. Some parents believed that without their ISN they would not have been able to keep their children. Members of ISN who offered beneficial support were described as available, trustworthy, and sharing characteristics with the PWLD. ISN were perceived to be less beneficial if members doubted the parenting capability of the PWLD or restricted the tasks they could perform. The most common outcomes investigated in quantitative studies were parenting behaviors (n=7); also investigated were parental mental health (n=4), child emotional/behavioral functioning (n=3), and child welfare status (n=3). Methodological limitations, including inconsistency in measurement and small sample sizes, prevented conclusions from being drawn about these relationships.
Conclusion. The perceived practical and psychological benefits of supportive ISN to PWLD indicates the importance of taking account of relationships with family, friends, and within the community in assessing the parenting capacity of PWLD. It is possible that early interventions designed to increase the size and strength of ISN may be beneficial for PWLD; however, further research about their impact on parent and child outcomes is needed.