I have a partner who is suffering from severe depression. When we have the slightest disagreement she breaks down into tears and goes upstairs with our 1-year-old son. She will cry for hours while he watches and if I approach her it gets worse.

What sort of effect will this have on our little, precious baby boy? Does this mean he will grow to dislike me? I love my partner but my sons well-being is far more important.

  • 1
    It probably will have some consequences, as young children already respond to calmness/freaking out in parents. But maybe the important question is not "is it bad" but "is it worse than the alternatives". What can you do beside supporting your wife in healing? Separate her from the child? Argue constantly in his presence? I wish you the best of luck in resolving a bad situation, but please don't jump to rash conclusions based on answers which take your question literally.
    – rumtscho
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 23:01
  • No it is not good for them to see their mother overly sad or depressed. Clinical depression can also be hereditary so get treatment now and find out what you are dealing with. Commented May 7, 2015 at 5:36

2 Answers 2


Infants learn how to socialize and express their emotions by interacting with adults, primarily with their parents. Developing a positive, "happy" bond with the mother is good for babies, and depression interferes with that.

Maternal postpartum depression during the child’s first year of life significantly predicted internalizing behavior problems. This association was not found if maternal depression occurred before pregnancy or during the prenatal period. [1]

Positive communication styles and maternal warmth observed in mother-child interactions have been associated with prosocial behavior and positive self-concept development in children (Kochanska, 1997). [2]

Children of depressed mothers don't get the same amount of positive interaction and smiling faces, and that impacts their ability to interact with other people, feeling attached to parents, and other social development. This isn't (necessarily) just short-term.

Results indicated that ... degree of maternal depression ... had independent predictive associations with youths' externalizing symptoms and functional impairment. [3]

(I can't access the full text of this article, so have quoted the abstract.)

It's more complicated than simply "whether the mother is depressed" — paternal depression, attention, and behavior play a role in either exacerbating or ameliorating the effects. If a father is smiling, playing, and taking care of the infant, then there's still some positive interaction.

These findings point to the presence of psychopathology in fathers as a risk factor for toddlers’ externalizing behavior problems when mothers have been previously depressed, and for toddlers internalizing problems when mothers have either a history of or current depressive symptoms... Paternal psychopathology may increase the likelihood of behavior problems in at-risk toddlers directly, as depressed and/or anxious fathers may provide inconsistent and permissive parenting, or indirectly, if they are less involved with caring for their children and leave depressed mothers sole responsibility for the daily behavioral management of toddlers. [2]

One of the key things that all the articles mention is that their research reinforces the importance of intervention, to treat maternal depression and thereby alleviate the problem for the child.

Speaking personally: as somebody who went through post-partum depression twice, I suggest you be careful in how you introduce the influence of maternal depression, if you even bring it up at all. Depression isn't something that you can just snap out of, and being told your sadness is hurting our baby! would have just sent me further into depressive spirals, helping neither me nor my child (nor, ultimately, my partner). It may be more productive to focus on encouraging her to seek help for her own sake, while you personally focus on being a positive parent and partner. That's something you can do whether or not she gets treatment for her depression.

Whether he will grow to dislike you -- I assume you are wondering whether he blame you for his mother being sad. My thoughts on this are less evidence-based. His feelings towards you will be pretty dependent on how you're interacting with your partner and your son during her crying episodes. (And, as the research above seems to indicate, his emotional well-being will be influenced, not just whether he likes you.) Seeking compromise, avoiding language or situations you know will be triggers, keeping a hold on your frustration and temper — not necessarily giving in on everything to avoid conflict, but working around the restrictions and obstacles that her disease is establishing. Couples counseling may be useful both to help you interact positively with each other, and also to give her a place to begin getting help and treatment for her depression.

  1. Bagner, D. M., Pettit, J. W., Lewinsohn, P. M., & Seeley, J. R. (2010). Effect of Maternal Depression on Child Behavior: A Sensitive Period? Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(7), 699–707. DOI

  2. Dietz, L. J., Jennings, K. D., Kelley, S. A., & Marshal, M. (2009). Maternal Depression, Paternal Psychopathology, and Toddlers’ Behavior Problems. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 38(1), 48–61. DOI

  3. Nelson, Denise R.; Hammen, Constance; Brennan, Patricia A.; Ullman, Jodie B. The impact of maternal depression on adolescent adjustment: The role of expressed emotion. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 71(5), Oct 2003, 935-944. DOI


My children find it quite frightening to see me cry. So, extrapolating backwards to age one, I think it must be frightening for that age too.

There are a couple of things I don't understand. (First, I'll say that I'm not sure if your partner is "she" -- but for convenience, I'll use that pronoun for now.)

First -- does she seem to find solace from being near him when she's upset?

Next -- are you hesitating to go pick him up and take him out for a walk, some lunch, or some play time, when she's having this cry-fest with him? Perhaps because you don't want to upset her further?

Last -- I don't get how this unfortunate situation might result in your son developing negative feelings toward you.

I have a suggestion for you. My husband and I were doing some family therapy when our second child arrived. When he was about six months old, the therapist suggested that we avoid having heated discussions in front of the baby. Well, that wasn't very practical, because he was a baby who didn't sleep much. So we started singing our disagreements. Simply stuffing the differences of opinion and problems we needed to work out wouldn't have done anyone any good. By singing our disagreements, we were able to keep up our good parenting, which was important to both of us, but still say what we need to say to each other. We just happened to hit on "The Streets of Laredo" by accident, and it worked really well. My verses tended to go something like this: "Oh (two syllable name of husband), you are not listening very well; actually I said the exact opposite...."

I hope your partner is in treatment and starts to improve soon. If your partner is reluctant to seek therapy herself, I would suggest you go by yourself. Living with a person with depression is not easy, and you would benefit from some therapeutic support.

  • I think the OP is concerned that the child would associate disagreements with his mother crying (and therefore grow to blame or resent the father for creating this situation)
    – Acire
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 11:32
  • @Erica, thanks for explaining. So, hopefully, singing the disagreements will help! Commented May 7, 2015 at 23:31
  • Agreed, changing communication styles can be pretty beneficial.
    – Acire
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 23:34

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