Having either parent suffer from depression may increase the likelihood that a toddler will develop troubling behaviors such as hitting, lying, anxiety, and sadness, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.
The study is one of the first to show that a father’s depression — from postpartum to toddlerhood — can have the same effect as a mother’s depression. Prior research has focused mostly on mothers with postpartum depression and found that their symptoms may impact their children’s behavior during a time of critical development.
“Father’s emotions affect their children,” said lead author Sheehan Fisher, an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “New fathers should be screened and treated for postpartum depression, just as we do for mothers.”
Mothers and fathers who are suffering from depression may not make as much eye contact or smile as parents who are not depressed. The more disengaged parents are from their child, the harder it will be for the child to form close attachments and experience healthy emotions,” Fisher said.
“Depression affects the way people express emotions, and it can cause their behavior to change,” he added.
Earlier studies have found that fathers are at a greater risk of depression after the birth of a child compared to any other time in a typical male’s life. The findings show 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 the toddler years.
“Early intervention for both mothers and fathers is the key,” Fisher 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.”
For the study, Fisher collected data from a group of nearly 200 couples with three year-olds, all of whom had participated in a previous depression study around the time of their child’s birth.
Participants reported information about their levels of 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 researchers.
The findings show that both the mother’s and the father’s depression levels during toddlerhood were each uniquely associated with the child’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
They also found that parents who reported signs of postpartum depression soon after the birth of their child also showed these signs three years later and that fighting between parents did not contribute to children’s bad behaviors as much as having a depressed parent did.
The study is published online in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.
Source: Northwestern University