Does Mother’s Depression Affect Children?
If you are depressed during the early years of your child’s life, what impact will this have on your child?
For example, suppose you suffered from postpartum depression right after giving birth to your child, what effect would this have on your child’s development? Or, if you have bouts of depression while your child is in her formative years, will there be long-range consequences for your child?
These are important questions because depression is such a prevalent condition for adults in this country. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 10 percent of all adults in the U.S. experience a mood disorder, and almost seven percent of adults suffer from serious depression.
Furthermore, four out of five women will experience a mild depression, often referred to as the “baby blues.” However, somewhere between 10 and 17 percent of all mothers will have the more serious postpartum depression, which could lead to a mood disorder that might last months – or even years.
Given these statistics, the question of how a parent’s depression will impact a child’s future is an important one. Studies dating back over the past thirty years show remarkably clear and consistent results: Children who live with a chronically depressed mother are at risk for many adverse effects. While it is likely that similar results would be shown if men and their depression was studied more, the fact is that men have been the subjects of fewer research studies related to parental depression and the outcomes for children.
However, it is clear that if mothers fail to receive treatment for their depression, babies and older children will suffer consequences. The major risks infants and children face if they live with a depressed mother include higher stress levels, abnormal reflexes, withdrawal, irritability, decreased vocalization, lower activity level, attachment problems, and depressed emotional expression.
The consequences of being around a depressed mother begin to appear within the first year of life. For instance, some babies whose mothers were depressed for the first six months of their life showed growth delays by their first birthdays. But the consequences of being around a depressed parent seem to be present even years later.
A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at longitudinal studies related to living with parents with mood disorders. This research found that by the age of 20 a child has a 40 percent higher risk of experiencing a major depression themselves. And as they are growing up, children of depressed parents have more trouble in general functioning, increased guilt, and greater problems getting along with others.
Another study, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported on comparisons between children who had depressed parents versus children growing up with non-depressed parents. Following children for 20 years, it was found that children of depressed parents had higher rates of anxiety disorders, major depression, and substance abuse problems than did children of non-depressed parents.
But a newer study helps to refine these results somewhat better. Looking at children’s risk for depression, this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, reports that children with depressed parents get more stressed out more easily than children with healthy parents. But these findings were dependent on one thing – how negative the depressed parents were to their child. The researchers from the University of Maryland and Stony Brook University found that kids who showed the most stress were those whose mothers were depressed at some point in the child’s first three years of life and whose parents were hostile when playing with their children.
While these findings only apply to stress, it is known that stress is a risk factor for depression. But if a parent is depressed and reacts in an irritated, hostile, and negative way to their child, that child is seemingly at risk for their own depression.
The results of the continually cumulating findings have very broad implications for both mothers and fathers. If you have children, and if you are depressed, failure to receive effective treatment is likely to result in long-term consequences for your children. These consequences may appear as early as the first year of life, but could continue on into adulthood.