It’s so easy to blame your parents for all that ails your mental health that it’s a tired punchline by this point. Everyone is always har-har-haring about some parental mishap that could have easily led to them establishing permanent residence on a therapist’s couch.
And yet, there has long been scientific debate about whether or not depression, anxiety and other psychological issues are a result of genetic factors passed on from parents to their offspring, or environmental factors — i.e., mostly what kids see and pick up from adults as they grow up. Up until recently, studies on biological parents and adoptive parents have yielded mixed results, leading many mental health experts to conclude that it’s a little of both.
The thing is, many of these studies have kept biological parents and blended families separate in their analyses, and few experiments have focused on father-child relationships in particular. “A lot of research focuses on depression within biologically related families,” Jenae Neiderhiser, distinguished professor of psychology and human development and family studies at Penn State University, explained in a press release. “Now more information is becoming available for adoptive families and blended families.”
In order to properly investigate, Neiderhiser and her team examined data from 720 families participating in the Nonshared Environment in Adolescent Development study, which included child-rearing stepparents in more than half of the families. As a part of the survey, mothers, fathers, stepparents and adolescent children ages 11 to 18 were asked about their history of depressive symptoms, as well as how much conflict they experienced as a family. Their findings, recently published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, indicate that depressed dads are significantly prone to passing their depression to their kids, regardless of whether they’re biologically related or not.
“Results pointed squarely to the environmental transmission of psychopathology between fathers and children,” Neiderhiser and her colleagues concluded, noting that conflict between dads, stepdads and their children made depression worse. “Paternal depression was consistently associated with child psychopathology, an association that held regardless of whether or not fathers and their children were genetically related.”
So how do stepdads pass on their depression to their kids? While the current study didn’t look at that question, it’s possible that it’s for the same reason research shows that adoptive mothers pass on their depression to their kids: Mental health concepts like learned helplessness and Beck’s cognitive theory suggest that depression is something that starts to develop in our childhood based on our experiences, observations and how we’re taught to cope along the way.
Essentially, if you grow up with a sad dad, whether you share his genetics or not, you might pick up some of his psychological behaviors and moods, setting you up to experience depression at some point in your lifetime.
As much as this may help confirm that your dad or stepdad could be in part to blame for your own depression, it may also make it easier to have compassion for what they struggle with, because you’ve been there too. It also makes it a little less funny to joke about passing the buck to them.