Strained relationship with mother, siblings tied to depression later in life, study finds

AMES, Iowa — Feeling strained relations with your immediate family, particularly your mother and your siblings, is linked to depression later in life, a new study finds.

Researchers at Iowa State University looked at data on 495 adult children and 254 families enrolled in the Within-Family Differences Study, a longitudinal survey conducted by Purdue University.

Sad woman with dog in coffee shop
A new study finds that having strained relationships with your mother or your siblings increases your odds of depression later in life.

The goal of the researchers’ inquiry was to examine how one’s relationship with their mother and siblings affected their well-being well into adulthood.

Controlling for race, gender, and education, the researchers measured for depression and tension between family members, finding that being on bad terms with one’s mother, brother, or sister was no less detrimental to mental health than feeling estranged from their spouse.

This finding was particularly true when it came to the relationship between mothers and daughters. Women who struggle to find a stable bond with their mothers showed a greater risk of depression than men.

Gender played no role, however, in depression risk when it came to relationships with siblings and spouses, the researchers found.

Many assume that one’s midlife years are relatively conflict-free, although this often couldn’t be further from the truth, says lead researcher Megan Gilligan.

“Family scholars have focused a lot on the relationship we have with our spouse,” explains Gilligan, an assistant professor of human development and family studies, in a university news release. “There is this assumption that as you go through your life course, you leave these other relationships with your parents and siblings behind, but you don’t. You carry those with you.”

Mid-aged individuals often find themselves caring for their parents, as their children simultaneously move out of the house for the first time. In the midst of these changes, an individual’s family structure, including their mother and siblings, becomes a resource they once again rely on.

Therefore, when family counselors look at issues with one’s spouse or children, they should also examine how the person in question relates with their biological kin, since these attitudes often transfer over to their other relationships, Gilligan suggests.

“These findings show that we are navigating other family relationships at the same time and we’re not experiencing them in isolation; we’re experiencing them simultaneously,” explains Gilligan. “The stress people are experiencing may be the result of a romantic partner or spouse. However, it could also be that they’re fighting with their siblings or they’re experiencing a lot of tension with their mother, even though they are 50 years old.”

The full study was published last month in the journal Social Sciences.


  1. Having no lady friend or wife also can also lead to serious loneliness. Choose your poison (because wife and mom are unlikely to get along).

    Siblings? Who cares…I discovered mine were absolute jerks once I reached adulthood. Keeping jerks out of your life also reduces stress.

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