Symptoms of depression can lead to overreactive parenting, study finds

A new longitudinal study published in Child Development has found that symptoms of depression in adoptive mothers is linked to harsh, overreactive parenting and behavior problems in children.

“My research focuses on early childhood parenting in the context of stress. I’m also particularly interested in the parenting of fathers, as they are extremely underrepresented in the literature compared to mothers,” said study author Lindsay Taraban, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“This project was exciting for me because it explored how the process of parenting in early childhood is influenced by the inter-parental relationship and the broader familial environment.”

The researchers examined 519 adoptive families who were participating in the longitudinal Early Growth and Development Study, which conducted in-home assessments when children were 9, 18, and 27 months old.

They found that overreactive parenting mediated the relationship between maternal depressive symptoms and children’s externalizing behaviors. In other words, mothers with depressive symptoms tended to overreact to their children’s behaviors, which in turn predicted the children’s emotional and behavioral problems.

Overreactive parenting included displays of anger, meanness, and irritability in response to infant challenges.

The researchers also found that fathers with depressive symptoms tended to overreact as well. However, this did not predict the children’s emotional and behavioral problems.

“Our findings suggest that both mothers and fathers are susceptible to compromised parenting when they’re experiencing symptoms of depression, even if this symptoms are relatively mild (i.e., would not meet clinical cutoff for a depressive episode),” Taraban told PsyPost.

The researchers also found that parents’ satisfaction with their own level of social support had no impact on the relationship between depressive symptoms and overreactive parenting. However, partners’ social support satisfaction did have an influence.

“The results point to the importance of parents with a depressed spouse finding sustaining social connections outside of their marriage,” Taraban explained. “Our data indicated that for both mothers and fathers, when a parent with depressive symptoms had a partner who was highly satisfied with their social support networks, that parent’s depression was less strongly associated with compromised parenting.”

“Practitioners should encourage not only depressed parents, but also their partners, to practice self-care so they have adequate support and can help create a warm, sensitive rearing environment for their young children,” suggested co-author Daniel Shaw.

The researchers examined adoptive parents to limit the influence of genetic factors.

“This work was done with an adoptive sample. Most of the children in this sample were adopted within days of birth and we have seen in other projects using this sample that these families tend to function similar to non-adoptive families in a lot of ways,” Taraban said.

“Still, adoptive parents in this sample tended to be older at the time of the adopted child’s birth, more highly educated, and better off financially compared to parents on average. Thus, these results may not generalize (i.e., may not follow the same pattern) for other types of families.”

“In terms of questions to still be addressed, we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding fathers’ parenting and their role in child development,” Taraban added. “Many questions remain in terms of how fathers and mothers work together to parent, differences in parenting practices and the effects of parenting for mothers and fathers, as well as the process of parenting for single fathers and non-resident fathers.”

The study, “Parental Depression, Overreactive Parenting, and Early Childhood Externalizing Problems: Moderation by Social Support“, was authored by Lindsay Taraban, Daniel S. Shaw, Leslie D. Leve, Misaki N. Natsuaki, Jody M. Ganiban, David Reiss and Jenae M. Neiderhiser.