Strong Dad-Child Bond May Buffer Against Mom's Depression

A new study finds that a positive relationship between a father and his young child can help mitigate the negative effects of maternal clinical depression on overall family life.

“When fathers rise to the challenge of co-parenting with a chronically depressed mother, become invested in the father-child relationship despite little modeling from their wives, and form a sensitive, nonintrusive, and reciprocal relationship with the child that fosters his/her social involvement and participation, fathering can buffer the spillover from maternal depression to the family atmosphere,” said Professor Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Studies have shown that families with clinically depressed mothers tend to have lower levels of cohesion, warmth, and expressiveness and higher levels of conflict, rigidity, and affectionless control. Since 15-18 percent of women in industrial societies and up to 30 percent in developing countries suffer from maternal depression, it is important to understand the effects of this mental health condition on children’s development and family life.

The findings, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, are the first to describe the family process by using direct observations of mothering, fathering, and family patterns in homes where mothers suffer from clinical depression during the child’s first years of life.

Feldman and colleagues conducted the longitudinal study using a carefully selected sample of married or cohabiting chronically depressed women with no comorbid contextual risk.

The women were repeatedly evaluated for maternal depression across the first year after childbirth and when the child reached age six. When the children reached preschool age, the researchers conducted home visits in order to observe and videotape mother-child, father-child, and both-parent-child interactions.

Sensitivity is deemed the most critical component of parenting regarding its effects on a young child’s emotional and social development. Sensitive parents are attuned to their child’s needs and attend to them in a responsive and non-intrusive manner. Parents who act intrusively tend to take over tasks that children are, or could be, performing independently, imposing their own agenda without regard for the child.

During the study, depressed mothers tended to exhibit lower levels of sensitivity and higher levels of intrusiveness, and children displayed lower social engagement while interacting with them. Partners of depressed mothers were also more likely to exhibit low sensitivity, high intrusiveness, and provide little opportunities for child social engagement. Overall, this led to the family unit being less cohesive, harmonious, warm, and collaborative.

However, the researchers found a very important exception: When fathers were sensitive, nonintrusive, and engaged their children socially, maternal depression no longer predicted low family cohesion.

As rates of maternal depression appear to increase each decade, and as paternal involvement in child care is on the rise in industrial societies, it is critical to address the fathers’ potential contribution to family welfare, said Feldman. This can be accomplished by providing interventions for the development of a sensitive parenting style and other compensatory mechanisms in order to enhance the father’s role as a buffer of the negative effects of maternal depression.

Source: Bar Ilan University