29 May 2013

Strong marriage shields kids from depressed dad

Research shows that a supportive spouse seems to improve a depressed father's relationship with his children.


A father's depression may not have a negative effect on his children if he has a strong marriage, according to a new study.

Although depressed dads may have difficulty addressing the emotional needs of their children, researchers from the University of Illinois found if these fathers have a supportive spouse who listens they may be able to improve their interactions with their children.

"When a parent is interacting with their child, they need to be able to attend to the child's emotional state, be cued in to his developmental stage and abilities, and notice whether he is getting frustrated or needs help. Depressed parents have more difficulty doing that," Nancy McElwain, a professor of human development, explained in a University of Illinois news release.

In conducting the study, the researchers examined information on 606 children and their parents enrolled in a study on early child development done by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Child's symptoms of depression

When their child was 4.5 years old, parents ranked their symptoms of depression and their perceptions of emotional intimacy in their marriage. The researchers also observed the parents interacting with their child during semi-structured activities. This interaction was repeated when the children were 6.5 years old.

"A supportive spouse appears to buffer the effects of the father's depression. We can see it in children's behavior when they're working with their dad. The kids are more persistent and engaged," the study's lead author, Jennifer Engle, said.

"At this stage of a child's development, an engaged parent is very important," Engle added. "The son's or daughter's ability to focus and persist with a task when they are frustrated is critical in making a successful transition from preschool to formal schooling."

Although the depressed dads with a supportive spouse had better interactions with their child, the study revealed that depressed moms did not benefit from the same level of intimacy in their marriage. The authors suggested one explanation for this discrepancy is that women respond differently to depression.

"Men tend to withdraw; women tend to ruminate," Engle explained. "We think that high emotional intimacy and sharing in the marriage may encourage a woman's tendency to ruminate about her depression, disrupting her ability to be available and supportive with her children."

In contrast, depressed men are more likely to withdraw from their partners. "This makes emotional intimacy in the marriage an important protective factor for fathers," McElwain noted.

The researchers advised parents suffering from depression to seek help from their spouse, friends, family and medical professionals.

The study was published recently online in Developmental Psychology.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about depression.

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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