Nurturing Parents May Lower the Risk of Depression In Kids

A child's future risk of depression is significantly lower in a supportive home.

Posted May 07, 2020

Part of being a parent is worrying about your kids. Parents worry about whether their kids will be okay, and whether they are giving them everything they need. But there is comfort in new study findings that support the hope that a loving family can reduce a child’s risk of depression.

Research from a variety of disciplines has shown that mental health in adulthood is related to how loving our parents were during childhood. However, it’s been hard to sort out how much of that is biology and how much is the support of the family. Is it more nature or nurture?

Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash

To better understand the role of the family in future depression, researchers in Sweden looked at sibling pairs who had a biological parent with depression, including 666 full siblings and 2,596 half-siblings. In each case, a least one child was raised by the biological parents and one was adopted.

Adoption can have its own stressful impact on a child, but in Sweden, adoptive parents go through intensive screening. They have to be able to “provide a supportive and generally advantaged home for their adoptive child.”

The researchers were able to use the Swedish national medical registry to find data on major depression, both in the parents and in the sibling pairs. They were careful to control for gender, parental age at birth, and, for half-siblings, history of major depression in the nonshared parent.

For a study like this, the results were impressive. The child who was adopted was 23% less likely to develop depression than a full sibling who was raised at home. In half-siblings, the risk of depression was 19% lower in the adopted child.

Being raised in a supportive family, then, appeared to provide a “protective effect.” Even if the educational levels were different between the biological and adoptive parents, the effect persisted. However, if the adoptive family experienced a divorce, death, or episode of depression in a family member, the advantage disappeared.

Overall, as long as they did not experience an adverse childhood experience (ACE), the adopted children seemed to benefit from the supportive environment their adoptive family gave them. According to a press release, the study authors believe that these findings “further strengthen the evidence that high-quality rearing environments can meaningfully reduce rates of major depression in individuals at high familial risk.” In other words, loving parenting makes a difference.

From a public health viewpoint, the authors also feel their study “supports efforts to improve the rearing environment in high-risk families as an approach to the primary prevention of major depression.”

For parents who worry they aren’t doing enough or that they might not notice if their child is depressed, this study is good news. Once again researchers confirm the role of love.