When dad is sad: Depression in fathers and children linked, regardless of genetic relatedness

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Our children are reflections of ourselves, and that holds true regardless of genetics. Scientists at Penn State say paternal depression may be contributing to an observed rise in adolescent depression and behavior issues — even among fathers and children who aren’t genetically related.

“A lot of research focuses on depression within biologically related families,” says Jenae Neiderhiser, Social Science Research Institute co-funded faculty member and distinguished professor of psychology and human development and family studies at Penn State, in a university release. “Now more information is becoming available for adoptive families and blended families.”

Study authors analyzed naturally occurring variations in genetic relatedness between parents and their adolescent children among 720 families. Importantly, over half of studied families included a child-rearing stepparent.

Family members (kids, mothers, fathers) answered questions individually measuring symptoms of depression, behavioral tendencies, and any parent-child conflicts. From there, researchers examined any associations between depression in dads and behavioral issues in their kids via a series of models.

Ultimately the investigation found paternal depression is indeed associated with both adolescent depression and adolescent behavior issues. Again, that’s regardless of whether the child and father are actually genetically related.

“The results pointed squarely to the environmental transmission of depression and behaviors between fathers and children,” adds Alex Burt, professor of clinical science at Michigan State. “Additionally, we continued to see these associations in a subset of ‘blended’ families in which the father was biologically related to one participating child but not to the other, which was an important confirmation of our results. We also found that much of this effect appeared to be a function of parent-child conflict. These kinds of findings add to the evidence that parent–child conflict plays a role as an environmental predictor of adolescent behaviors.”

Study authors expected to observe a link between parental depression and their kids acting out, but were surprised to see the association remain consistent among parent-child pairs who were not genetically related.

“It would be great to do more studies on step and blended families,” Prof. Neiderhiser concludes. “They tend to be an underutilized natural experiment we could learn more from to help us disentangle the impacts of environmental factors and genetics on families.”

The study is published in Development and Psychopathology.

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