Parenting is no walk in the park, and when you’re depressed it can be that much harder — both because of the way you feel and because your kids can feel your mood, too, and they may even act out as a result.
Both mothers' and fathers' depression can have measureable effects on the kids, a new study shows, making it all the more important to get treated sooner rather than later.
Two hundred couples who had recently had children filled out questionnaires about their own moods and behaviors and those of their children for a recent study, both right after childbirth, and then again when the kids were three. Each partner in the couple rated their child’s “internalizing behaviors” like sadness, anxiety, and jitteriness; and their “externalizing behaviors” like acting out, hitting, and lying.
Parents who experienced postpartum depression were also more likely to be depressed when their children were three. And both maternal and paternal depression when the kids were three were linked to changed behaviors in the children — both internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
A chronic state like depression may affect children more than occasional bouts of fighting.
Interestingly, fighting between parents didn’t have the same connection to children’s behaviors as parental depression did, suggesting a chronic state like depression affects children more than occasional arguments.
“Depression affects the way people express emotions, and it can cause their behavior to change,” said study author Sheehan Fisher in a statement. He added that when people are depressed, they often don’t make as much eye contact, smile, or connect in other subtle ways with the people around them — kids, unfortunately, included.
When parents are distracted and disengaged from their kids, it’s more likely that kids will act out or withdraw emotionally.
What’s really interesting about the study is that it’s one of the first to show that paternal depression can have as much of an effect as maternal depression. Though we think of mothers as having the greater emotional effects on their kids, the new research shows that this is just not true.
“Fathers' emotions affect their children,” said Fisher, who teaches at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “New fathers should be screened and treated for postpartum depression, just as we do for mothers.”
The study’s findings are all the more reason to get treated if you’re depressed — whether you’re a parent or not. But if you are a parent, remember there’s a little person who’s watching your every move and picking up on all your subtle emotions and reactions.
“Early intervention for both mothers and fathers is the key,” Fisher said.
Paternal depression can have as much of an effect as maternal depression.
“If we can catch parents with depression earlier and treat them, then there won’t be a continuation of symptoms, and, maybe even as importantly, their child won’t be affected by a parent with depression.”
Parenting is hard under the best circumstances. If you’re depressed, reach out to a close friend or family member, or a mental health professional. Effective treatments are out there — it’s often just a matter of finding the right one, or the right combination. You’ll feel better once you do, and so will your children.
The study was carried out at Northwestern University and published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.