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Can Fathers Experience Post-Adoption Depression?

Many have heard of the “post-adoption blues” experienced by adoptive moms. This difficult and unexpected experience after becoming an adoptive mom is usually characterized by sadness, lack of energy, crying and a depressed mood — all the things that typically come to mind when we hear the word “depression.” But this condition is not reserved for just mothers.

In the last six years, more research has come to light on the father’s experience after adoption, with findings showing that fathers do experience post-adoption depression. But fathers have very different symptoms.

When experiencing post-adoption depression, fathers are more likely to disengage from the family and display anger and frustration rather than the sadness or melancholy that mothers typically experience. These out-of-character behaviors don’t happen overnight, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The onset of symptoms can be very slow and minor. For example, maybe Dad is a tiny bit more irritable one day and everyone chalks it up to him having a bad day. These bad days may become more frequent, and then one day, the irritability suddenly erupts as anger or frustration. Another example could be that he is spending more and more time away from the family; maybe he is working more, out with his buddies or even resuming old drinking habits. Other ways fathers experience post-adoption depression are withdrawing from marital interactions, not paying attention to the child(ren), putting most of the parenting and household duties on the mother or just zoning out in front of the TV or behind the newspaper.

Research reports a wide range in the rate of post-adoption depression, with it being experienced by anywhere from 8 to 32 percent of adoptive parents. In early studies, researchers thought that this condition was associated with personal or family psychiatric history of depression, but that has been disproven. Instead, the significant symptoms of post-adoption depression are associated with stress and adjustment difficulties after placement. Often, the stress that leads to post-adoption depression stems from a difference in expectations parents have about adopting children from institutionalized care and the reality of that parenting experience. Parents reported not being able to get enough alone time and rest. Unfulfilled or unrealistic parental expectations about family, friends and society’s response to adoption are also contributing factors. Particularly in international adoptions, fathers report anger about their perception of not being fully informed of their child’s needs. This leads to feeling overwhelmed and wanting to take action, but many then find it difficult to find the support and information they need. Other contributing circumstances can be lingering grief over infertility or the death of a biological child, or perhaps delayed or lack of bonding between the child and the father or mother.

A challenge for dads experiencing post-adoption depression is that family, friends and even professionals often do not recognize their unique symptoms. This hinders identification of their condition and creates barriers to correct treatment. Many questionnaires that assess depressive symptoms don’t cover male symptoms. So when you reach out to a professional for help and they ask questions about your symptoms — like changes in sleep, eating and mood — you may have to educate them about male symptoms such as anger attacks and/or alcohol use. Make sure they are using The Gotland Male Depression Scale (GS) that specifically assesses for male depression and may prove to be more valid in identifying paternal post-adoption depression.

Many parents resist seeking treatment because of feelings of shame, fear or guilt. It is so important to accept the support of your loved ones to prevent this insidious condition from rippling through the entire family. Research has documented that children of a depressed parent are impacted, both academically and/or behaviorally, years after their parent’s condition has improved. So if you’re experiencing post-adoption depression, you owe it to yourself and your family to seek an assessment and follow prescribed treatments.

If you’re experiencing post-adoption depression, know that there is hope! When correctly diagnosed and treated, post-adoption depression can be overcome and you and your family can experience stability and joy as you adjust to life together.

If you or a loved one is experiencing depression, please contact your physician for a referral to a mental health professional. Here are some national organizations that may have additional resources for you: National Alliance for Mental Illness, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Information in this article is based on Karen Foli Ph.D.’s article “Sad Adoptive Dads: Paternal Depression in the Post-Adoption Period” International Journal of Men’s Health, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 2011, 153-162.

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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