Parents’ depression can lead to toddlers in trouble (even more than fighting parents)

This week I presented a report on the Heckman equation (you can read it here in Dutch) in which I mentioned the concept of toxic stress. Stress in early life can leave lasting impacts on the brain. And this new study adds evidence to this insights. A father’s depression during the first years of parenting — as well as a mother’s — can put their toddlers at risk of developing troubling behaviors such as hitting, lying, anxiety and sadness during a critical time of development.

The study in short:

  • Both maternal and paternal depression levels during toddlerhood were each uniquely associated with child internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
  • Parents who reported signs of postpartum depression soon after the birth of their child also showed these signs three years later.
  • These findings suggest that both maternal and paternal depression in the postpartum period set the stage for future parental depression.
  • Fighting between parents did not contribute to children’s bad behaviors as much as having a depressed parent did.

From the press release:

This is one of the first studies to show that the impact of a father’s depression from postpartum to toddlerhood is the same as a mother’s. Previous studies have focused mostly on mothers with postpartum depression and found that their symptoms may impact their children’s behavior during early, formative years.

“Father’s emotions affect their children,” said Sheehan Fisher, lead author of the study. “New fathers should be screened and treated for postpartum depression, just as we do for mothers.”

Sheehan is an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He conducted this study while he was a researcher at the University of Iowa.

The study was published online in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Mothers and fathers who are depressed may not make as much eye contact or smile as much as parents who are not depressed. The more disengaged parents are from their child, the greater the risk the child will have forming close attachments and healthy emotions, Sheehan said.

“Depression affects the way people express emotions, and it can cause their behavior to change,” Sheehan said.

Previous studies have shown that fathers are at a greater risk of depression after the birth of a child than at any other time in a typical male’s life. This study found that a father’s mood during postpartum is important to the trajectory of his depression three years later and significant for predicting his child’s behavior during toddler years.

“Early intervention for both mothers and fathers is the key,” Sheehan said. “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.”

Sheehan collected data from a cohort of nearly 200 couples with 3-year-olds. These couples had participated in a previous depression study around the time of their child’s birth.

Questionnaires administered to the participants gathered information about parental depression, their relationship with their partner, and their child’s internalizing behaviors (sadness, anxiety, jitteriness) and externalizing behaviors (acting out, hitting, lying). The questionnaires were completed by both members of the couple independently and mailed back to the investigators.

Abstract of the study:

Maternal postpartum depression has been linked to later internalizing and externalizing behaviors in offspring; whereas, the consequences of paternal postpartum depression have received little attention. Further, research has produced inconsistent findings regarding mechanisms accounting for the link between postpartum depression and subsequent child behaviors. The purpose of this longitudinal study was to extend previous research by examining simultaneously the unique effects of maternal and paternal postpartum depression on child behaviors, and exploring the potential mediating roles of later depression and interparental conflict. The study included a sample of 199 couples whose index child was an average age of 4.5 months at the postpartum assessment and 45.5 months at the toddlerhood assessment. Findings suggest that both maternal and paternal depression in the postpartum period set the stage for future parental depression and interparental conflict. Parental depression during toddlerhood was associated with child internalizing and externalizing behaviors and represents a primary mechanism through which postpartum depression is linked to child behaviors for both male and female children. Interparental conflict was not a significant mediator, but may have an indirect role in internalizing and externalizing behaviors through its associations with parental depression. Clinical implications include the need for pediatric primary care providers to routinely implement systematic screening practices for parental mental health and to provide referrals to couples and parenting programs when depression is detected.

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