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University of Illinois

Good marriage can buffer effects of dad's depression on young children

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 23, 2013

Source: Nancy McElwain, 217-244-7168, mcelwn@illinois.edu

URBANA – What effect does a father's depression have on his young son or daughter? When fathers report a high level of emotional intimacy in their marriage, their children benefit.

When a parent is interacting with their child, they need to be able to attend to the child's emotional state, be cued in to his developmental stage and abilities, and notice whether he is getting frustrated or needs help. Depressed parents have more difficulty doing that.

But if a depressed dad has a close relationship with a partner who listens to and supports him, the quality of father-child interaction improves.

A supportive spouse appears to buffer the effects of the father's depression. We can see it in children's behavior when they're working with their dad. The kids are more persistent and engaged.

In the study, the researchers used data from a subset of 606 children and their parents who participated in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

When their child was 4½ years old, parents ranked themselves on two scales: one that assessed depressive symptoms and another that elicited their perceptions of emotional intimacy in their marriage. Parents were also observed interacting with their child during semi-structured tasks when the children were 4½, then 6½ years old.

At this stage of a child's development, an engaged parent is very important. The son's or daughter's ability to focus and persist with a task when they are frustrated is critical in making a successful transition from preschool to formal schooling.

Interestingly, depressed mothers didn't get the same boost from a supportive spouse.

That may be because men and women respond to depression differently. Men tend to withdraw; women tend to ruminate. We think that high emotional intimacy and sharing in the marriage may encourage a woman's tendency to ruminate about her depression, disrupting her ability to be available and supportive with her children.

Depressed men, on the other hand, are more likely to withdraw from their partners. This makes emotional intimacy in the marriage an important protective factor for fathers.

The study emphasizes the need for depressed parents to seek support, if not from their spouses, from friends, family, and medical professionals..

The article was published in Developmental Psychology and is available pre-publication online at http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2013-14498-001/. Jennifer M. Engle, now of Sewanee, the University of the South, and Nancy L. McElwain of the University of Illinois are co

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