The Impact of Parental Depression on Children
by Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, President of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.
Depression affects millions of adults over their lifetime, many of whom are parents with children. Depression disrupts a parent’s ability to work, care for their child, and participate in daily life activities. It is estimated that over the course of any year, about 7.5 million adults with depression have a child under the age of 18 living with them.
One of the most important studies on the impact of parental depression on children was conducted by Dr. Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., of Columbia University, a 2020 recipient of the Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health. In 1982 Dr. Weissman embarked on a groundbreaking study that would define her career and change conventional wisdom. She called it “the high-risk study.” Its purpose was to enroll patients with moderate to severe depression and to follow their offspring over time––and do the same with an age-matched group of non-depressed healthy people who would serve as controls.
The idea was to watch the children of depressed parents, their mothers especially, to see whether the children developed depression or other psychiatric symptoms more frequently than children of non-depressed parents. According to Dr. Weissman, this “first wave” of the high-risk depression study showed that depression was “highly familial,”––meaning that having a mother or father with moderate to severe depression significantly raised the odds that a child would also develop symptoms. The other main finding was that depression symptoms were uncommon before puberty but that there was a big rise after puberty, in adolescence. Ten years later Dr. Weissman and her colleagues repeated the study, following the same patients and controls, as well as some new recruits. The findings were sustained.
Children of depressed parents, when they began to show symptoms, did not show symptoms of other psychiatric ailments. Their symptoms were specific––they had depression.
At the 20-year mark, Dr. Weissman and her colleagues once more revisited the families enrolled in the high-risk study. This time the scientists began to incorporate newly available tools in an attempt to understand the biology of depression. At this interval, in addition to exams and interviews with participants, brain-wave studies called EEGs were performed. In later iterations of the study–– at the 30- and 35-year marks, respectively—MRI scans were performed and DNA collected from those willing to donate samples. These technologies are now central in efforts by Dr. Weissman and her colleagues to identify biomarkers––biological indications of depression—to aid diagnosis and treatment.
The major findings to emerge from Dr. Weissman’s work were, in many cases, the children of depressed mothers are themselves negatively affected by their mothers’ condition and just as important, when depressed mothers are successfully treated, the mental health of their children also improves.
Studies by other scientists link parental depression (including prenatal depression) with a wide range of difficulties, some lifelong. Depression not only interferes with parental bonding and nurturing, it also means parents may not be as likely to do the things that are necessary to keep their children safe and healthy. According to the Yale Child Study Center, school-age children with depressed parents may not perform as well academically, and have also been found in some studies to be more likely to have behavior problems, and have poorer overall health.
Symptoms of Parental Depression
Depression affects a parent’s mood, sleep, appetite, and energy level. Typical symptoms of depression include persistent sadness and the loss of interest in activities that used to bring pleasure, along with sleeping too little or too much, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, poor energy and even thoughts of suicide. Untreated depression can raise the risk of alcohol and other drug use.
Signs of depression that are specifically related to parenting include:
- Lack of responsiveness to a child. Parents with depression are less likely to respond appropriately to the cues (such as crying or eye contact or gesturing) of their young children
- Inappropriate parenting behaviors. Some depressed parents are neglectful and disengaged from their children, while others are hyper-intrusive and over-engaged. What these seemingly opposite behaviors have in common is the fact that neither is sensitive to a child’s cues.
- A child’s tardiness or truancy at school. Children may consistently arrive late or miss school because their parents don’t have the energy or are not organized enough to get out the door on time.
Today psychiatrists and other doctors (including primary care doctors, ob-gyns and pediatricians) are increasingly aware of the many health risks linked to depression. Most doctors screen for it at regular appointments by looking for symptoms and asking specific questions designed to help identify it.
Depression is treatable – with psychotherapy and/or medicine, as well as other treatments such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). If you are a parent and experiencing depression – do not suffer in silence – seek treatment. The treatment will not only help you, but will also help your child.
Dr. Weissman will be sharing her research findings at the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation’s free International Mental Health Research Virtual Symposium available On-Demand beginning on October 30th. Register now to watch her present “Thirty Years of Studying Families at Risk for Depression: What Have We Learned?”