The Downside Of Parental Negativity

I’ve come across a number of new studies that have examined how consistent exposure to negative emotions can have a very strong impact on kids, particularly in terms of their risk for depression. I’m not talking about the occasional frustration that all parents have – rather I’m referring to negative interaction styles that can seem innocuous but in fact become insidious. Every parent expresses some anger, hostility, a sharp tone, or annoyance now and then – but what happens if it starts to become habit? 

The short answer is that there are two things to consider.

First, it is very clear that emotions are contagious. Recent studies show that parental negativity can bring an infant down – even if the baby is not especially prone (via temperament) to negativity. Parents can start “behavior chains” early in life – if you are often cranky with your baby, chances are your baby will respond the same way. Studies with older kids have confirmed (for a long time now) that negativity in the home leads to early emerging symptoms of depression in the school years (not full blown depressive episodes, but the first signs of depressed mood). Of course, the opposite is true – for example, when parents are treated successfully for depression, their kids shown rapid improvements with respect to their own depressive symptoms.

Second – and this is the big piece for me – new research is suggesting that this cumulative exposure to parental negativity can lead kids to develop the cognitive risks for later, full blown, depressive episodes. Researchers typically assess what they call “attributional style” – sort of how kids see themselves and the world. It’s very clear that certain attributional styles (think kids with low self-image and a lot of defeatist attitude) are a strong risk factor for later depression. What’s emerging is the idea that the chain goes like this: parental negativity -> child negativity -> negative attributional style -> later depression. In particular, the middle childhood years – and the entry into adolescence – are key developmental periods when attributional style comes together. So the thinking is that kids’ developmental history of emotional experiences in the home help shape their emerging attributional style.

I bring all this up because, to my mind, it’s become somewhat fashionable to talk about the downside of parenting. Much of this is healthy venting – sure, parenting is stressful, it changes your life, there are lots of not great moments that occur, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. But the thing is, if negativity starts to become the overriding experience of being a parent – and if kids get exposed to habitual (rather than occasional) negativity – their chances of becoming depressed later in life go way up.

So I have two take-home messages:

If you think you may be depressed, seeking out treatment (behavioral, pharmaceutical, a combination) could have a very positive impact on your life. Treatment works – and when it works, it helps kids too.

If you find yourself slipping into negative interaction styles with your kids, take the lead and change the emotional climate. Keep in mind that positivity – like negativity – can be contagious!

Be Positive Not Negative via Shutterstock.com

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