The link between parental depression and impaired parenting has been well established. But a recent study of 519 adoptive parents in the U.S.A. found something surprising: the link all but disappeared when the depressed parent’s partner reported high satisfaction with the level of social support he or she received from outside the family. Meanwhile, depressed parents’ own satisfaction with the social support they received had no such effect.
The researchers suggest that parents whose partner is suffering from depression, and who therefore have less social support in the family, particularly need social support from outside. Such external support could help them contribute positively in the family to counteract the negative impacts of their partner’s depression. On the other hand, one of the hallmarks of depression is social isolation, which may why the depressed parent’s own social support doesn’t play a similar role.
This study suggests a need to engage both parents when supporting families where one parent is depressed. The non-depressed parent’s experiences appear to have an important influence on early childhood development outcomes.
The links between depression, parenting quality and early childhood development
Most research on the links between depression, parenting quality and early childhood development outcomes for children has focused on mothers. A multitude of research studies have shown a link between a mother’s depression and the quality of her parenting, especially in early childhood. Similarly, much evidence shows that overreactive (that is, harsh) maternal parenting is associated with lower levels of child social competence, academic achievement and emotion regulation, as well as behaviour problems in early childhood.
Much less research has explored how fathers affect early childhood development, despite the fact that fathers are participating more in child care and that rates of paternal depression range from 4% to 26% in the first year of fatherhood (according to various studies). The links between paternal depression and impaired parenting are similar to those among mothers, but the research is less decisive about the link between impaired paternal parenting and child outcomes.
The impact of social support on parenting
Earlier research has tended to look at the impact of social support only on the parent who is suffering symptoms of depression, and seldom at fathers. The earlier research shows that parents’ relationships with close others and their wider social environment – friends, extended family, work, community, and faith networks – may influence the extent to which symptoms of depression interfere with parenting and early childhood development. Social influences on parents are not always positive: in some cases, they are actually a negative influence. The quality of the social support is important.
Work with adoptive parents eliminates genetic influences
This research looked at symptoms of depression in parents who adopted babies at birth, in order to remove the possibility that inheritable genetic influences were affecting the results. It involved 519 adoptive families participating in a larger U.S. study, the Early Growth and Development Study. The researchers looked at parents’ depressive symptoms when the baby was nine months old, parenting quality at 18 months, and they examined the child’s behavior at 27 months. They controlled for the birth mother’s psychopathology, further isolating the impact of the adoptive parents’ depression and parenting on early childhood development.
Taraban L, Shaw DS, Leve LD, Natsuaki MN, Ganiban JM, Reiss D & Neiderhiser JM (2018), Parental depression, overreactive parenting, and early childhood externalizing problems: moderation by social support, Child Development