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Similarities and Differences in the Influence of Paternal and Maternal Depression on Adolescent Well-Being



It’s known that depressed parents may negatively influence the well-being and outcomes of their children. However, prior research has mostly addressed mother’s depression rather than the father’s; furthermore, the research has mostly addressed effects on early childhood and not adolescents.

To address this gap, Kevin Shafer, PhD, Brandon Fielding, MSW, and Douglas Wendt, MSW, recently had their findings published in a the NASW Press-published journal Social Work Research. Using data from the sixth grade and age 15 waves of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, their study addressed similarities and differences in the influence of paternal and maternal depression on adolescent behavior.

Scholars across several disciplines, including social work, are concerned about the influence of parental depression on children. Studies addressing this question have looked at a myriad of outcomes, including developmental markers, child behavior, academic performance, and well-being. Generally speaking, these studies show that parental depression negatively influences children. However, the literature has primarily addressed the effect of mother’s depression on early childhood outcomes. As a result, fathers and adolescents have been largely ignored in past studies.

Their study has the following research questions:

  • Does depression have direct effects on adolescent internalized and externalized behavior?
  • Does depression work through parenting behaviors, specifically warmth, hostility, and monitoring, to influence adolescent internalized and externalized behavior?
  • Does the effect of parental depression and parenting behavior on adolescent behavior differ for mothers and fathers?

Using the data mentioned above, the researchers found that paternal depression, but not maternal depression, had a direct effect on both internalized and externalized behavioral problems. Second, parental depression followed a gendered pattern when considering its effects on parenting behaviors. In comparing the influences of paternal and maternal depression on adolescent behavior, the researchers found that only paternal depression directly affected internalized and externalized problem behaviors. Maternal depression had neither direct nor indirect effects on child outcomes. These findings run contrary to prior research, focused primarily on younger children, which has shown that parental depression is indirectly associated with child outcomes through parenting behavior. Focusing on fathers, they speculate that there are two possible reasons for this finding. First, adolescents are far more emotionally aware than young children, suggesting that adolescents may be cognizant of a parent’s depression whether parenting behaviors change or not. Second, it is possible that gendered depressive symptoms could play a role in the direct relationship between paternal depression and child outcomes. Men and fathers are more likely to externalize their depressive symptoms in ways that may uniquely affect children. The researchers indirectly tested for this possibility by linking depression to hostile parenting. However, they found no significant association between paternal depression and hostility in our sample. Perhaps, then, paternal depression is manifested in actions like substance abuse, anger, or creating an unhappy home environment—ideas that should be explored in future research.

The finding linking paternal depression to adolescent behavior underscores the significance of mental health’s influence on family members. This suggests that clinicians and other social workers addressing adolescent behavioral issues should consider the family context. More specifically, fathers are often-overlooked parents who can influence their children and contribute to or detract from their well-being. As a result, the researchers argue that social workers should screen parents, including fathers, for depression and talk to adolescents about how parental depression may affect the overall functioning of the family and how it may affect them personally. Doing so would require social workers to take a holistic, systemic approach to understanding adolescent behavior, including both paternal and maternal depression.

This study provides a foundation for future research. For instance, researchers should address why paternal depression has a direct effect on behavior, whereas maternal depression does not. One possibility is that men often manifest their depressive symptoms in an external fashion, although we were limited in our ability to get at this as a possible mechanism. In other words, it is possible that anger, substance use, and other male-typical symptoms of depression play a substantial role in affecting adolescents because they are visible and directed at others.

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