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Dad's Depression May Raise Kids' Risk of Emotional Problems

Study Shows Impact of Fathers' Depression on Children's Emotional Development
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 7, 2011 -- Children of depressed dads are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, compared with kids whose dads are not depressed, according to a new study.

Much has been written about how a mother's depression can affect her children. But less is known about how depression in dads affects a child's emotional development.

The new study looked at more than 22,000 children from two-parent homes. It showed that depression in dads increases kids' risk for emotional problems.

The researchers measured depression and more general mental health problems among parents using two standardized tools.

The study appears in the December 2011 issue of Pediatrics.

According to the findings, a child's risk for emotional or behavioral problems was still much greater if their mothers, rather than fathers, were depressed or had other emotional problems (19% vs. 11%, respectively).

Children were even more likely to display emotional or behavioral problems if both parents were depressed. One-quarter of children with two depressed parents had emotional or behavioral problems.

Study researcher Michael Weitzman, MD, breaks it down this way: "There is a doubling of the risk if the father alone is depressed, a tripling of the risk if the mother alone is depressed, and the risk increases fourfold if kids have a depressed mom and dad."

Weitzman is a professor of pediatrics at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "This is huge," he says.

Depressed parents parent differently, he says. "How people parent influences every aspect of child development," he says. For example, "if a parent is depressed, the normal things that might excite him or her can be an irritant," he says. 

Treating Depression in Dads

R. Neal Davis, MD, a pediatrician at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah, agrees. Parents who are depressed engage in less positive parenting behaviors and more negative ones, he says. For example, they may be less likely to read to their children and more likely to spank them.

"Depression in parents affects children, and it is our job to encourage parents to get care, as this will have spillover benefits on their kids," he says.

Davis has seen firsthand how identifying and treating depression in moms and dads can have positive effects on their children's development.

"The earlier we can catch the depression, the better it is for all involved," says James F. Paulson, PhD. He is an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

He says that these new findings may encourage depressed dads to seek help, and that is a very good thing. This is the first large-scale study in the U.S. that documents the association between depression in fathers and a child's emotional and behavioral problems, he says. "For dads who may feel uncertain about seeking help, remember this isn't just about you, this is about your kid and even if you are not willing to get help for yourself, do it for your child."

The study did not get into the specifics of the children's emotional and behavioral issues. Paulson tells WebMD that some of the problems that these children could face will vary based on their age.

"Toddlers may show more difficulty regulating their emotions, have more ups and downs in their moods, and may tend to be more aggressive or react more explosively," he says.

School-aged children, however, are more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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