Some Effects of Parental Depression on Children

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • In the past couple of posts I've been considering the nature of depression within marriage. I’ve asked whether marital upsets cause depression and secondly, how might depression affect marriage? It stimulated a few helpful comments from readers. Now we really have to address another question, and that is, how does depression in one or both parents affect children?

    Most of the research to date has been on the effects of maternal depression but depression in fathers is being shown to have a detrimental effect on children too. Unfortunately research findings over the past 25 years or so are remarkably consistent. Approximately half the children from families where one or both parents are depressed will go on to develop depression. The children of depressed parents are also more likely to display marked psychosocial impairments and even more general health problems. Even infants and toddlers show behavioral, cognitive and social impairments if their mothers are depressed.

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    Several studies have pointed to the difficulties that depressed mothers have in bonding with their infants. The mother seems insensitive to the needs of their child and maternal responses are inconsistent. The child may react in a number of different ways but typically seem generally unhappy and have greater difficulties getting to sleep. During the day they may be hard to feed, appear inactive and may not respond well to attempts to comfort them.


    Quite a lot of attention has focused on parent-child relations in families with a depressed parent. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that depressed mothers are more negative and distant and negative interactions with their child or children are more commonplace. Even when symptoms of depression have passed these negative styles seem to persist.


    As toddlers children may present with a variety of challenging behaviors. They may resist parental authority, become aggressive, defiant and negative. The depressed parent often views this as another notch on their failure post – this time as a parent. Dr. Richard O’Connor has written about his experiences of helping single mothers of four-year-old boys, which he describes as “a particularly difficult combination”. They try to teach mothers how to defuse power struggles and rebuild affection but without such help, O’Connor says, the child is set on a course to grow up with “dangerous and destructive ideas about the self – that he’s unlovable, uncontrollable, and a general nuisance. He doesn’t know how to get attention from adults in positive ways, so gets labeled a troublemaker. He doesn’t know how to soothe himself, so is at risk from substance abuse. He doesn’t know he’s a worthwhile human being, so is at risk from depression.”


    It’s a complex and complicated issue. Yes, the risks are very high for children when a parent is depressed but not all children suffer such negative outcomes. As to the reasons, well again, they are likely to vary from family to family but we know social and emotional support from other family members can act to protect children. We know that stressful family lives affect parent-child relationships in a negative fashion. The age of the child when depression first affects a parent may also be influential, but that the child’s own social competence; exposure to stress and positive activities and role models are all influential. 


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    O'Connor, R. (2006). Depressed Parents and the Effects on Their Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 9, 2014, from

Published On: February 10, 2014