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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
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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.

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