A positive relationship between parents can protect children from the negative effects of paternal depression

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A new study has established a link between paternal depression and young children’s future internalizing problems. Interestingly, the researchers found that a positive relationship between parents completely eliminated this association. The findings were published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Much of the research concerning parental depression has focused on children of mothers with depression, leaving a shortage of data concerning how a father’s depression may affect children. Study authors Lindsay Taraban point out that this lack of research is especially unfortunate given that fathers are becoming increasingly involved in the childrearing process.

The evidence that does exist suggests that paternal depression is more likely to affect children’s internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety) compared to externalizing symptoms (e.g., aggression). Taraban and colleagues suggest that this may be due to the fact that fathers typically have less direct contact with children than mothers do. A father’s depressive symptoms would, therefore, be less likely to affect a child’s behavior through poor parenting and more likely to influence the child’s inward state through the modeling of negative affect.

The researchers were motivated to uncover possible factors that might attenuate this link between paternal depression and a child’s adjustment. Namely, they proposed that a positive relationship between the parents as well as a child’s inhibitory control may be relevant protective factors.

An analysis was conducted on a subsample of 166 families who were part of a larger study called the Early Steps Multisite study. The study had primary caregivers and their children complete assessments when the children were ages 2, 3, and 4. At ages 2 and 3, both parents completed measures of depression, interparental relationship quality, and assessments of their child’s inhibitory control. At age 4, children’s internalizing symptoms were assessed.

The researchers note that most of the fathers in the sample fell below the cut-off for major depression. In their study, “paternal depression” therefore refers to the extent of a father’s depressive symptoms rather than an indication of major depression.

The analysis revealed that fathers’ depressive symptoms when children were at age 3 were positively related to children’s internalizing problems at age 3, after controlling for mothers’ depressive symptoms.

In line with the researchers’ predictions, the relationship between parents appeared to be a protective factor for a child’s adjustment. When parents scored high in interparental relationship quality, paternal depression (when children were age 3) was no longer associated with children’s future internalizing problems (at age 4).

Children’s inhibitory control appeared to be an additional protective factor. For children high in inhibitory control, the link between paternal depression at age 3 and children’s internalizing problems at age 4 was nonexistent. The authors explain, “it is likely that children high on inhibitory control are able to solve more problems independently and require less support and scaffolding from their parents, thus lessening parental caregiving strain.”

The authors express that a strength of their study was that it was conducted among a high-risk sample of families that were low-income as well as racially and ethnically diverse. However, the caregiving in these families was unstable, meaning that few fathers were present at every assessment. The authors suggest that future studies take the father’s involvement into account, to see if the findings differ for involved versus less involved fathers.

The study, “Sad Dads and Troubled Tots: Protective Factors Related to the Stability of Paternal Depression and Early Childhood Internalizing Problems”, was authored by Lindsay Taraban, Julia S. Feldman, Melvin N. Wilson, Thomas J. Dishion, and Daniel S. Shaw.