Why Are Depressed Fathers Likely to Have Depressed Teens?

New research shows a previously unknown link.

Posted Nov 24, 2017

Adolescents whose fathers suffer from depression are likely to develop depression themselves, according to a long-term study of nearly 14,000 families. I think research findings about links like these raise important questions about their meaning and source. In this case, what accounts for fathers becoming depressed to begin with? And how does their depression help explain depression in their children?  I think answers exist, and they reflect three sources. They reveal a more complex picture about could help, beyond just medication and therapy that quells the symptoms.

To explain, let's take a closer look at the study, led by University College London, and published in Lancet Psychiatry. It was based on two longitudinal studies of children growing up in Ireland and Great Britain. The studies followed children between 7- and 9-years-old; and again between 13 and 14. As described in a UCL report, the study was the first to find first to find an association between depression in fathers and their teenage children, independent of whether the mother has depression. The findings held up when adjusted for possible factors such as maternal depression, family income, and alcohol use.

"There's a common misconception that mothers are more responsible for their children's mental health, while fathers are less influential, but we found that the link between parent and teen depression is not related to gender," said the study's lead author, Gemma Lewis. "The mental health of both parents should be a priority for preventing depression among adolescents. There has been far too much emphasis on mothers but fathers are important as well."

Although the research was conducted with Irish and British families, I think the findings ring true with what we often see clinically in the U.S. as well, among men, women and families who seek psychotherapy—or who suffer in silence—from depression, anxiety or other debilitating emotional conflicts.

So: What might be the source, and what could help? It’s not enough just to underscore that a link exists, and that men should seek help—as important as that is, per se. For example, Lewis says, "Family-focused interventions to prevent depression often focus more on mothers, but our findings suggest we should be just as focused on fathers." And, "Men are less likely to seek treatment for depression. If you're a father who hasn't sought treatment for your depression, it could have an impact on your child…(and) our findings could encourage men who experience depressive symptoms to speak to their doctor about it."

But that emphasizes treating the symptoms, whether in the father or the adolescent. A broader view helps identify what often fuel depressions in fathers’ lives in today’s culture; and how that impacts the growing child. There are three main sources, all important for a father to recognize and deal with:

  • Is his work sufficiently fulfilling and meaningful? Does he feel trapped by the material benefits of work that nevertheless feels soulless, or part of an unhealthy management culture?
  • Is his relationship with his life partner open, transparent, and sustaining in vitality, or submerged beneath resentments, hidden grievances, or covert struggles for control and dominance?
  • And overall, does he experience a sense of purpose in his life; a vision of what makes life worth living; something of value to pursue and aspire to over the years ahead, as his life changes and evolves in often unpredictable ways?

To illustrate each:

Nearly every day a new survey appears that shows a majority of people dislike their work; sometimes hate it outright; or feel trapped and unable to grow, given the leadership practices of their organization. As one man famously said, “I love my work, but hate my job!” Does the adolescent not observe and absorb that at home?

At home, fathers often ignore or fear the need for emotional openness and mutuality in their relationship with their wives. They may fall back on socially conditioned attitudes and behavior aimed at keeping the upper hand in decision-making or handling disagreements. And these themes often carry over to the father’s relationship with his growing adolescents.

And the more encompassing theme—finding an overriding sense of purpose to life—often eludes fathers, from neglect or fear. Most care about showing a good role model to their adolescent children, boys or girls—a vision of joy and creative pleasure in living as a grown-up. But if the father experiences an absence of meaningful purpose himself, or feels that dimensions of his own personality are stifled, unable to flourish—despite steps he could take to grow more in those directions and increase his mental health—what does that convey to the adolescent about what it means to become an adult?

Lewis touches upon those sources—work, relationship, and life purpose—and how they impact children, saying "Children see the way their parents behave and act and this could bring on negative ways of thinking, which could then lead to depression."

As children grow into adolescence, they are starting to tune in to the adult world and begin to reflect on what they see and experience via their fathers or other male figures. If that picture isn’t very engaging to them, if it’s not something they find worth aspiring towards, despite whatever material comforts they have, then it’s no surprise that they may become depressed. Nor is it a surprise that the father’s own experience of life has an impact—and not just the mother’s, as the research underscores.

© 2017 Douglas LaBier

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