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Why Our Closest Family Relationships Can Lead to Depression

How do your relationships with mother and siblings affect midlife mental health?

Key points

  • Research shows ongoing tension with mothers and siblings is associated with symptoms of depression.
  • Tension between mothers and adult children is a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it is for sons.
  • People tend to start taking care of their parents during midlife, which can cause more tension and strain.
Source: microcosmos/Shutterstock

When men and women seek psychotherapy during midlife, a common theme permeating their life conflicts, whether at work or at home, is depression. Two new empirical studies should be of interest to anyone who may suffer from depression in midlife. One found a link between depression and the conflicts you may have with your mother and siblings—yes, even during your midlife years—and that link was particularly strong for women. The other study, larger in scale, had a different focus—the link between depression and how long your lifespan is likely to be, particularly for men.

In the first study, researchers from Iowa State University looked beyond the typical and understandable shifts in relationships people have with family members as they move through their own midlife years. One typical example is the emotional aftermath when children enter young adulthood and leave the house—the “empty nest” syndrome many experience, which can contribute to a depressed mood. Another occurs when you have aging parents who begin requiring more care—also a potential source of depression. In psychotherapy, we often see midlifers who experience either or both of these inevitable shifts.

But this new research, summarized here, highlights something beyond those typical experiences: It found that the quality of your relationship with your siblings and with your mother, in particular, continues to impact your own psychological well-being through the middle years of life. That is, the study found empirical evidence that any ongoing tension with mothers and siblings—similar to that which people may have with their spouses—is associated with symptoms of depression. It found that all three relationships have a similar effect; one is not stronger than another. As lead author Megan Gilligan points out, “Midlife is a time when siblings are often coming back together as they prepare and navigate care for parents. For that reason, it’s a pivotal time when these family relationships might be experiencing more tension, more strain, more discord.”

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the relationship between mothers and daughters is even more powerful. It found that tension between mothers and adult children was a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it was for sons. (Gender didn’t make a difference in relationships with spouses and siblings.)

Gilligan adds, “We know that mothers and daughters in adulthood have the closest relationships and also the most conflictual. These are really intense relationships. Later in life, adult children start providing more care to their parents, and daughters, in particular, are often caregivers for their mothers.” The research was based on data from the Within-Family Differences Study and was published in the journal Social Sciences.

Adding to the significance of those findings about links between depression and conflicts with mothers and siblings is a Canadian study of more than 3,000 people tracked from 1952 to 2011. It focused on mental health and mortality data during that period and found that depression was associated with an increased risk of premature death in every decade of the study—from the beginning, for men; and, after the 1990s, for women as well.

That link between depression and premature death held up even after accounting for things like obesity, smoking, and drinking habits. That’s significant, and disturbing to anyone concerned with long-term health and vitality. The study was summarized in this report and published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association.

Both studies contribute empirical evidence to what we regularly see clinically in psychotherapy with midlife men and women. Such data underscores the importance of healing the emotional drivers of depression, which can continue throughout the later decades of life. Ignored, they affect the quality of one’s life and well-being and even raise the risk of premature death.

© 2017 Douglas LaBier

Facebook image: microcosmos/Shutterstock

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