Methods: Data came from the Grade 6 and Age 15 waves of the Survey of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), a longitudinal study of child development conducted by NICHD in 10 sites across the United States. Our sample consisted of adolescents that had contact with a biological/adoptive residential mother and a biological/adoptive/social father (n = 898). The dependent variables were externalizing (α = 0.91) and internalizing behaviors (α = 0.85) at age 15, measured by the Child Behavioral Checklist. The independent variable was a categorical variable indicating if only the mother, only the father, both parents, or neither parent was depressed at Grade 6. This was determined by using the clinically significant cutoff score of 16 on the CES-D 20 scale. Control variables included child gender, child race, presence of a social father, income:needs ratio, maternal and paternal parenting behaviors, mother’s and father’s educational attainment, father’s residential status, mother’s assessment of coparenting relationship, and internalizing and externalizing behavior at Grade 6.
Results: Approximately 71% of adolescents had neither parent with a clinically significant depression score, 12% with a mother only, 8% with a father only, and 9% had both parents depressed. OLS regression, correcting for the clustered nature of the data and correcting for heteroskedasticity, was used for the analyses. For externalizing problems, father’s depression had a positive effect (b = 3.712, p < .001), as did having two depressed parents (b = 8.932, p < .001), when compared to having no depressed parents. Maternal depression (b = 2.162, p < .01) and having two depressed parents (b = 9.579, p < .001) was associated with internalized problems.
Conclusions and Implications: The results indicate that child wellbeing is strongly and negatively impacted by having two depressed parents. When only one parent is depressed, the results followed a gendered pattern. Children with depressed fathers were more likely to have externalizing behavioral problems, whereas internalizing problems were more likely when mothers were depressed. Supplementary analyses showed no differences in these effects by child gender. The results underscore the importance of a family system perspective, the impact of parental mental health on children of all ages, and the need for research which considers the full family system, not just mothers and children.