Parental depression or anxiety can look like anger. It can look like fatigue. It can look like sadness.
And, as a new study shows, parental depression can also look like overreacting.
The fact of the matter is depression looks different for different people—and we need to talk about this range of experiences if we stand any chance of giving parents the help they need.
According to study recently published in the journal Child Development that looked at a longitudinal sample of 519 adoptive families with infants found that both mothers and fathers who struggle with depression are more prone to overreacting or parenting “harshly.” For the parents, this looked like displays of anger, meanness or irritability in response to challenges from their infants.
Although the study was focused on adoptive families, anger is a common symptom of depression for anyone. As Robyn Landa described of her experience with parental depression and rage in an essay for Motherly:
“My toddler could put his shoes on the wrong feet and I would become so angry I could spit nails. He could accidentally forget to flush the toilet and I would become hot under the collar with rage. He once asked if he could have cereal instead of waffles for breakfast and I acted like the world was ending. This is when I knew I wanted help.”
But the new study reveals one important factor was shown to help: When the other partner was satisfied with their social support outside of the relationship, the partner struggling with depression didn’t display the tendency to overreact.
“For parents who have a depressed spouse, it may be important to have sustaining social relationships—with friends, extended family, and others—outside the marriage,” says Lindsay Taraban, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the study. “Through such relationships, parents may receive advice and empathy that increases their ability to support their depressed spouse and positively shape his or her parenting behavior.”
The researchers found that 27-month-old children of mothers (but not fathers) who reported overreacting as a symptom of depression earlier in the children’s lives “are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes—including more frequent behavior problems.”
This is why giving mothers the resources and support to cope with depression is not “just a maternal health issue,” but one that affects every member of the family.
The research also proves that we need to do a better job of educating parents on the range of symptoms associated with depression and need to support the other members of the family.
Says Daniel Shaw, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who co-authored the study, “Practitioners should encourage not only depressed parents, but also their partners, to practice self-care so they have adequate support and can help create a warm, sensitive rearing environment for their young children.”
The more attention and support we bring to this cause, the better we’ll all be.