When Moms Get Depressed, Part One: Following Their Children From Infancy To Adolescence
Depression is a common disorder: it’s estimated that one in three individuals will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. It’s even more common in females, who are at twice the risk as males. Putting all this together, it is not uncommon to experience depression when you are a mother.
If you have been depressed as a mom (or are currently experiencing depression), one of the questions you may have is what effects it will have on your children.
It’s been known for decades that children who have a depressed mom are more likely to suffer depression in the future (typically the first onset is in the teens or early twenties). A new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers a detailed look into this by studying the effects of postnatal depression on development from two months of age through the mid-teens (age sixteen). This project used a prospective longitudinal design and studied the families multiple times across a sixteen-year period.
The key finding was that the children who were exposed to postnatal depression in their moms were much more likely to have experienced depression themselves by their mid-teens (this happened to 41.5% ) as compared to the kids whose moms weren’t depressed (the rate for them was 12.5%). A few things to consider:
- clearly not every child who had a depressed mom experienced depression
- some kids who did not have a depressed mom did experience depression
- but the difference between the two likelihoods is large and clinically meaningful
This study offered some insight into the reasons why depression breeds depression. Three factors were important:
- maternal depression was linked with insecure attachment in infancy
- children with depressed moms showed lower levels of resilience in childhood
- children with depressed moms were exposed to higher levels of marital conflict
It’s important for moms to know that researchers examine these issues in order to guide strategies to help depressed moms and their kids. Scientists try to identify the actual processes that put kids at risk — at different ages — so that we can consider ways to intervene and make life better for moms and their children. For example, it could be that the link between postnatal depression and offspring depression is due to genetic factors (which could have a different set of implications for intervention). The researchers of this study focused on what they believed to be environmental factors that are influential, with the idea being that these could be changed.
In my next two posts this week, I will discuss another recent study which gives support to the “environmental” pathways hypothesis, and then report on a study that shows how treating depressed moms leads to improvements in the children.