Many children of depressed mothers also have antisocial fathers, new study findings show, and both parents’ problems are associated with an increased risk of depression and conduct disorder among the children.
“These findings imply that children of depressed mothers frequently experience an additional risk that we were unaware of before: that of having a father who engages in antisocial behavior,” study author Dr. Naomi R. Marmorstein of Rutgers University in New Jersey told AMN Health.
“Thus,” she added, “the children’s difficulties may be compounded by the norm-violating behavior of their fathers.”
Previous studies have found that children of depressed mothers may experience a host of problems including mental and motor impairment in infancy and psychopathology in adolescence, as well as an increased risk for major ddepressionand conduct disorder.
Few researchers, however, have investigated the paternal contribution to the risk of depression and conduct disorder for these children.
To investigate, Marmorstein and her colleagues looked at hundreds of 17-year-old twins along with their mothers and fathers.
They found that twins with a depressed mother had a more than two-fold increased risk of experiencing major depression and a nearly two-fold risk of having a conduct disorder. The risks were similarly increased for those with an antisocial father in comparison to those whose fathers had no history of antisocial behavior.
In general, women with major depression seemed to be more likely than their non-depressed peers to have children with a man whose psychiatric history included antisocial behavior, the researchers report in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Nearly 50 percent of the men who had children with depressed mothers had a history of antisocial behavior. The same was true for only 37 percent of the men who had children with non-depressed mothers.
“This study shows that adults with psychological problems are often in relationships with partners who are also psychologically troubled but who have problems of a different type,” Marmorstein said.
The study did not examine why the depressed women partnered with antisocial men or why antisocial men partnered with depressed women, but Marmorstein speculated that “antisocial men may seek out women who are depressed and perhaps meek and lacking in self-confidence so that they can dominate and control them.”
Alternatively, “women who are depressed could be attracted by the confidence and strength of many antisocial men,” she said. “It is also certainly possible that the mothers’ depression could be related to distress over their partners’ antisocial behavior.”
On the other hand, Marmorstein said that she and her team cannot rule out the possibility that the father’s antisocial behavior somehow resulted from the mother’s depression.
Also, it is not known how the risk for depression and conduct disorder is transmitted to the children of depressed mothers or antisocial dads. Environmental or family risk factors as well as genetics may both play a role, the report indicates.
For example, divorce - which may lead to depression or conduct disorder among the children - is more likely to occur among depressed and antisocial parents.
Such parents may be able to reduce their children’s risk of a psychiatric disorder by not only getting treatment themselves but also by being especially attentive to their children.
“Parents who exhibit warmth toward their children, establish clear guidelines for behavior that are consistently enforced, monitor their children’s activities, and are emotionally supportive of their children are likely to prevent many problems that might otherwise occur,” Marmorstein said.
Further, she added, “the consistent presence of a supportive adult outside the family has also been shown to aid in children’s healthy development, so family members or teachers who are able to fill this role would also be quite helpful.”
SOURCE: American Journal of Psychiatry, September 2004.
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD