Father's Depressive Behaviors Negatively Influence Children

Dads with depression could affect children's internal/external behavior.

While depression in either a mother or father can negatively influence children, fathers with depression have effects on both internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children, according a new report. In the case of internalizing behavior, the authors wrote, problems are directed inward and can lead to withdrawal, anxiety, and depressed mood. Externalizing behaviors can be seen in examples of heightened anger and aggression.

Researchers from the School of Social Work at Brigham Young University studied sixth graders and 15-year-olds to determine how depression manifests in parental behavior and how it affects their children’s adolescent behavior. A total of 1364 mothers, residential fathers, and their children were recruited from 10 locations across the United States to take part in a larger study. Using this data, researchers examined well-being, mental and physical health, behavior, parenting, and child care.

The study authors noted that about 7% of American adults can experience a major depressive episode annually and nearly a fifth of all American adults will experience major depressive disorder in their lifetime. Additionally, they said, prior studies on the topic found that parents are about 15% more likely to be clinically depressed than non-parents—especially parents of adolescents.

The researchers discovered that a mother’s depression was linked to a decrease in warmth and a decrease in monitoring. A father’s depression was linked to an increase in hostility.

“While depressed dads and non-depressed dads do parent differently, the biggest effect for dads is from depression to the child’s well-being,” Kevin Shafer, PhD (photo) told MD Magazine in an email. “We believe this is because these dads are more likely to act out in anger (think hitting walls or yelling).”

Depressed fathers lead to a direct association to internalized behavioral problems in children. Hostility was also weakly linked to behavioral problems. The researchers believe this suggests that paternal depression does not work through parenting behaviors to influence internalized problems in adolescents. However, a small but insignificant effect was present for externalizing behavior in children at age 15 when a father’s depression was present. A father’s hostility was also linked to externalizing problems.

In mothers, the researchers wrote that there was no direct association to internalized problems in children. But, decreases in warmth or monitoring both had negative effects on children’s internalizing behaviors.

“Most women internalize their depression and it is manifest in subtler ways than it is for men,” Shafer continued. “As a result, many moms parent differently when they are depressed versus when they are not depressed. They are less likely to hug their children, monitor their children’s actions and behaviors, and may be more hostile toward their children. This, in turn, affects child well-being.”

Dr. Shafer also noted that these results were similar across boys and girls involved in the study.

The study authors believe that fathers are often overlooked parents who can influence children—including detracting from their wellbeing—and argue that social workers should screen both parents for depression. Conversations should be had with adolescents about how their parent’s depression could affect them personally and overall family function.

The study, titled, “Similarities and Differences in the Influence of Paternal and Maternal Depression on Adolescent Well-Being,” was published in the journal Social Work Research.

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