Parental depression: An often “silent” threat to children’s mental health

Today is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a chance to reflect on the mental well being of our children and think about what works for improving their mental health.  An often silent threat to young children’s mental health is the mental health of their parents.  Professionals who work with children and families know that having a depressed parent is a risk to young children’s well-being.  Now research is shedding light on some of the pathways these effects take.  Most of the research has been on mothers, but increasingly fathers’ depression has garnered attention, in part because of the ongoing economic crisis.

Unemployment, particularly that due to job loss, is associated with increased depression.  And studies repeatedly show that parents with lower incomes and socio-economic disadvantage have higher rates of depression than more well-off parents.  One out of 14 infants (seven percent) has a mother with severe depression; among infants living in poverty, it’s more than one in ten (11 percent).  When less-severe depression is included, rates are up to five times higher.[i]  Incidence of depression among fathers, while less well documented, has been increasing over the past twenty years.[ii]

When parents suffer from clinical depression, their interactions with their child—in particular, their ability to respond sensitively to his or her interests and needs—are negatively affected.  In some cases, this can lead to the child’s developing attachment problems and subsequent difficulties in relationships with both peers and adults.  Parental depression is also associated with inappropriate or ineffective child discipline, and less positive parent-child communication.[iii]  For instance, depressed fathers read less to their young children and are more likely to report spanking them.[iv]

Now research presents evidence that when depressed mothers receive treatment, it has a positive impact on their children—specifically, their psychiatric symptoms, behavior problems, and overall functioning improved one year after mothers initiated treatment.[v]  This is a clear-cut case of a “two-for-one” bonus.

Multiple ties—genetic, environmental, and relational—connect children and their parents.  Thus, we should not be surprised that parents’ mental health is closely linked with their child’s.  Recognizing the importance of this issue, calls are widespread (from the National Academy of Sciences[vi] and others) to routinely screen pregnant and parenting women for depression.  And perhaps we should add fathers.

-David Murphey
Senior Research Scientist, Child Trends


[i] Vericker, T., Macomber, J., and Golden, O. (2010). Infants of depressed mothers living in poverty: Opportunities to identify and serve.  Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

[ii] Davé, S., Petersen, I., Sherr, L., and Nazareth, I. (2010). Incidence of maternal and paternal depression in primary care.  Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, published online (www.archpediatrics.com) on September 7, 2010.

[iii] Moore, K. A., Hair, E. C., Vandivere, S., McPhee, C., McNamara, M., and Ling, T. (2006).  Depression among moms: Prevalence, predictors, and acting out among third grade children.  Child Trends Research Brief. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends-2006_03_01_RB_MomDepression.pdf

[iv] Davis, R. N., Davis, M. M., Freed, G. L., and Clark, S. J. (2011). Fathers’ depression related to positive and negative parenting behaviors with 1-year-old children. Pediatrics, published online March 14, 2011.

[v] Pilowsky, D. J., Wickramareatne, P., Talati, A., Tang, M., Hughes, C. W., Garber, J., Malloy, E., King, C., Cerda, G., Sood, A. B., Alpert, J. E., and Trivedi, M. H. (2008). Children of depressed mothers 1 year after the initiation of maternal treatment: Findings from the STAR*D-Child Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(9), 1136-1147.

[vi] National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2009). Depression in parents, parenting, and children: Opportunities to improve identification, treatment, and prevention.  Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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