What do depressed fathers do?

Depressed fathers We hear a lot about depressed mothers, but depressed fathers are rarely discussed. Depression is a major issue for moms, in part because of it's more common for women to become depressed than men, but also because of its impact on parenting. In last week's episode of the podcast, we spoke with Dr. Michelle Sherman about the impact of parental mental illness on teens, and previously Dr. Gabor Maté discussed what can happen when a parent is unable to be responsive to a child's needs. I recently wrote about some evidence suggesting that depressed parents use guilt to control their kids' behaviour. But what do depressed fathers do that differs from other dads? In a study published in the current issue of Pediatrics, researchers aimed to find out more about the parenting behaviour of depressed fathers.


After analyzing interviews with over 1700 fathers of one year-olds, Dr. Neal Davis and his colleagues found that depressed fathers were almost 4 times more likely to spank their children than nondepressed dads. Increasingly, researchers and clinicians are highlighting the potential negative impact of corporal punishment on kids. The finding is especially concerning since the children in the study were 1 year old, a time when, as the researchers noted, "children are unlikely to understand the connection between their behavior and subsequent punishment and when spanking is more likely to cause physical injury." It isn't hard to imagine that punishing toddlers in this way could have a detrimental impact on the parent-child relationship.

Not only was depression linked to a greater number of negative parenting behaviours in the form of spanking, but depressed fathers also engaged in fewer positive behaviours. In particular, they were less likely to read to their kids. Previous research has demonstrated benefits of reading to kids on the development of their own reading abilities, which can, in turn, have an effect on their performance at school. The loss of pleasure and lack of energy associated with depression probably makes it harder for dads to get motivated to read with their children.

These results, which are similar to those found for mothers, suggest that depressed fathers are more likely to engage in behaviours aimed at short-term behaviour management and less likely to engage in relationship-building activities such as reading to their children. A major problem with depression, in my opinion, is that its symptoms have a tendency to "take over" - the lack of energy and pleasure, the difficulties with concentration, and the low self-esteem that accompany a Major Depressive Episode make it difficult to do the very things that would make someone feel better. Depressed people are often reluctant to exercise, and they tend to withdraw from interactions with others, or to drive others away because of their low mood. Hopefully, results like these can serve as reminders to depressed parents that treatment can be beneficial not only for themselves, but for their kids.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.