Do depressed moms have depressed kids?

IAN HOOTON / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARYDepression can be a debilitating condition, affecting not only mood and outlook, but sleep, appetite, energy levels, and concentration. These symptoms are bad enough for an individual, but for a husband, wife, or parent, they can have ripple effects throughout the home, interfering with relationships and possibly affecting the ability to respond to children's needs. When considering the impact of parental mood problems on children, researchers have tended to investigate the impact of maternal depression, and have found links between depressive symptoms in mothers and a number of areas of adjustment for children and adolescents. In a study published in the current issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers followed mothers and their children from 1 month after birth until they were 15 years old to investigate the impact of maternal depression on the mood and behaviour of teens. What was unique about this particular study is that maternal symptoms were examined regularly for more than a decade, and the adjustment of the adolescents was reported by the teens themselves.

The researchers found that the children of mothers with chronic depression reported higher levels of depressive symptoms themselves than those whose mothers weren't depressed. They also indicated higher levels of "internalizing problems," or difficulties that include worry, sadness, withdrawal from others, and physical complaints without a physical cause.  This link was found for males and females. The children of mothers who reported "stable, subclinical" levels of depressed symptoms (ongoing mood difficulties that didn't reach the severity to be called "depression") showed the same increase in depressive symptoms and internalizing problems! This suggests that even relatively mild depressive symptoms might have an impact on children.

Some of the mothers in the study reported depression when their kids were young, but their mood improved over time. The children of these women did not differ from those whose mothers were never depressed, even though their lowest ratings of symptoms was higher than those of the subclinical group. It's possible that the improvement in the mothers' symptoms was somehow protective for the children; perhaps they learned some coping strategies through their mother's example? If so, the finding suggests that depressed mothers who get help might also be helping their children over the long term. So stable depressive symptoms, even when they don't reach a clinical level of severity, are linked to difficulties for teens. However, if the symptoms get even somewhat better, the child's mood doesn't seem to be affected.

Readers might believe that this study provides more ammunition for those who wish to blame the mothers for the difficulties of children. However, a close look at the data presented in the study reveals a possible silver lining: even the children of the most depressed women in the research project reported symptoms and behaviour problems that were not above average. So the youth who were the MOST depressed were reporting symptoms that would be considered age-appropriate; they had more difficulties than their peers whose mothers were not depressed, but their overall mood was normal!

Mothers may not need to feel guilty that they're somehow passing their depression on to their kids, but getting help can still have a positive impact both individually and within the family. I'm certainly not blaming mothers for the difficulties of their kids. Instead, what if parents considered involving the whole family in therapy? It's possible that a family therapy intervention might help the spouse and children to be more supportive along with providing coping skills that could be helpful for anyone who might someday deal with a depressed mood.

You can read the Journal of Abnormal Psychology Study here.

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