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Ask the Experts

Question:

Will a child's perception of his or her parents' marriage and of family life affect his or her susceptibility to depression in adult life?

Answered by: David Shaffer

There is a statistical relationship between family disruption (i.e., disagreements, separations, and divorce) and later depression. The relationship is stronger in families who experience economic difficulties after the separation or divorce and in which the divorce or separation was preceded by violence within the family.

One reason why being brought up in an unhappy family or experiencing family disruption and then going on to be depressed in later life might occur is that depression tends to run in families, and depression in one parent or spouse often leads to significant marital difficulties.

In such a case, the child both inherits a predisposition towards depression and experiences a host of negative experiences resulting from the unhappiness between both parents. These can include parental preoccupation, so that the parents show reduced sensitivity towards their child, because they are too preoccupied with their marital concerns.

Sometimes, the reverse takes place, and an unhappily married parent becomes too preoccupied with and too close to their child, who might then lose the ability to master problems themselves or start to feel responsible for the happiness and well-being of their parents. Last but not least, unhappy marriages are more likely to spawn physical and sexual abuse, which can have lasting consequences.