His 22-year-old daughter hangs on to her high school boyfriend as a security blanket, he says, and his 17-year-old son seems seriously depressed. Further, he adds, the 13-year-old boy is overly sensitive, feeling compelled to "rescue" anyone who is hurt. Granted, such perceptions are filtered through McMane's own feelings of guilt and responsibility — and his kids might not agree — but he's right to worry.
Although their father's depression may not be the cause of all these qualities, evidence is mounting that growing up with a depressed parent increases a child's risk for mental health problems, cognitive difficulties and troubled social relationships. The research on how a depressed parent affects kids has slowly accumulated for about 20 years, "but it's really taken off in the last few years," says Vanderbilt University psychologist Bruce Compas.
The harmful effects on children were summed up last year in a report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Problems begin early, as the infants of depressed mothers cry more than other babies. They have greater fear of strangers and less tolerance for frustration, according to the report. Starting in preschool, kids with depressed parents are more likely than classmates to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Across all stages of childhood, they have more behavior problems at school and higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders.
By adolescence, children with depressed parents have poorer social relations than the teens of parents who aren't depressed, and they're more likely to be dependent on alcohol and drugs, the federal report indicates. Depression in parents also is linked to poorer academic performance, according to studies in the report.
And some harmful effects of growing up with a depressed parent appear to linger well into adulthood. A 20-year study following the children of depressed parents and a comparison sample of kids whose parents had no mental disorders found that those with depressed parents suffered about triple the rate of anxiety disorders and depression by their 30s, were in poorer health than peers and much more likely to be dependent on drugs and alcohol. The study, believed to be the longest ever done on kids of depressed parents, was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006.
These effects may not only be long-lasting but also far-reaching. Serious depression affects about one in five American parents, and 15.6 million children live with an adult who has had major depression in the last year, according to government data.
But as knowledge about the effects of parental depression has grown, so too has research into how to combat those effects. Studies suggest, for example, that changing destructive parenting practices and teaching children good coping strategies can make a big, positive difference in kids.
"We can reverse the effects of parental depression," says William Beardslee, a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He's also chief of a Boston Children's Hospital program on preventing depression in families and co-wrote the National Research Council report.
Depression can hamper parenting in two key ways, that report says.
Adults may withdraw from their children, not interacting with them much because their own suffering is so acute. Some of these kids may be subjected to true neglect if a parent is very withdrawn and there are no other adults around to be there for the kids. At the opposite extreme, depressed parents can become overly intrusive or authoritarian, trying to control everything about their child. They may even lash out harshly, possibly becoming child abusers.
Parents who can change these destructive patterns may ultimately prevent their children from continuing a negative cycle with yet another generation.
Trouble Starts Early
Adult depression can have an effect even before active parenting begins.
Depressed pregnant women smoke and drink more than pregnant women who aren't depressed, research has shown, increasing health risks for the developing fetus. They're also in poorer health, seek less prenatal care and produce more stress chemicals that reduce fetal growth. Even controlling for other factors linked to premature birth, depressed women are almost twice as likely as others to deliver a premature baby, and this risk increases with the severity of depression symptoms.
Then comes the effect on newborns.
About one in 11 infants has a mother with major depression, according to a research update report last December by Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. Healthy emotional and brain development depends on a "serve and return" interaction, just like a tennis game. Tots engage parents' attention, prompting parents to respond with words or facial expressions, which stimulate more infant communication.
If caregivers are withdrawn or hostile, this shuts down the game and may even alter the architecture of the child's brain.
EEG brain scans show the children of depressed moms have patterns of brain activity similar to those found in adults with depression. Among these children, the patterns are most pervasive if the depressed mother was withdrawn from her infant and also if she was seriously depressed in the child's second and third year, when the brain systems that generate these waves are developing rapidly. That means the child of a depressed parent may become vulnerable to depression very early in life, at least in part through how parenting affects the brain.