Children whose fathers are depressed are more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems than those whose fathers aren’t, according to a US study of more than 20,000 families.
The issue is especially important at a time when many parents are out of work and struggling to support their families, while others are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with emotional wounds, said study author Michael Weitzman, at the New York University School of Medicine.
Though depression in mothers had long been associated with an increase in problems for children, this is one of the first times the connection with depressed fathers has been studied on such a large scale, he added.
“In the big picture of caring about our children and trying to do whatever is best to help them achieve the highest potential … clearly fathers are not regularly thought of,” Weitzman said.
The findings, published in Pediatrics, also showed that children were most likely to have problems when both parents suffered from depression.
Weitzman and his colleagues used data from a national study that included home interviews with 21,993 families, all of which had a child between the age of five and 17, and both a mother and father living at home.
At each interview, either the mother or the father answered questions about depression symptoms in both parents, as well as how much trouble children had getting along with their parents or other children, and behaviour at home and at school.
Eleven percent of children with a depressed father had problems at home or at school, and 19 percent had problems if their mother was depressed.
If both parents had depression, as many as one in four children struggled emotionally and behaviourally.
When neither parent had depression symptoms — the case in nearly nine in ten families — only six percent had emotional and behavioural problems.
Weitzman and his colleagues said the study doesn’t prove that parents’ moods rub off on their children. For example, parents could be more prone to depression if their children have those problems.
But it still seems likely that having a depressed parent has consequences for children, they said.
Other researchers agreed.
“Parents who are depressed tend to engage less with their children, tend to display less positive behaviours, and display more harsh, negative and critical behaviours,” said Jeremy Pettit, a psychologist from Florida International University in Miami, who wasn’t involved with the study.
He added that while there is no clear evidence that treating depression in parents will cut down on depression in children, recognising the condition when it’s there and seeking out treatment for it is the best possible approach.