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Mothers are more connected to their children than they think, long after their umbilical cords are cut off. While previous studies have shown that maternal depression during pregnancy may be linked to their children’s mental health in adolescence, a recent study found that a mother’s depression during her child’s pre-adolescent years may also influence their behavior and mental health during their teenage years.
Canadian researchers who followed almost 3,000 children and their mothers for more than ten years found that young children (ages two to five years) whose mothers experienced depressive symptoms were more likely to engage in risky behaviors in their teenage years than those whose moms were not depressed.
The team used questionnaires every two years to interview mothers and children in a national survey from 1994 to 2009. The children were aged 2-5 years at the start of the study but by age of 10-11 years, they were able to fill out their own questionnaires until they were about 16-17 years old.
The researchers considered factors such as the child’s sex and family socioeconomic status, and identified some trends among kids whose mothers experienced symptoms of depression when the children were 6-10 years old (middle childhood years). The results showed that teens were more likely to smoke, use marijuana, take alcohol, or use hallucinogens if their mothers experienced depression during their middle childhood years. These adolescents also tended to engage in nonviolent as well as violent delinquent behaviors. These included fighting, stealing, damaging property, carrying weapons, attacking someone, driving under the influence (or riding with someone who is), or selling drugs.
They also suggest that midchildhood is a sensitive period wherein exposure to a mother’s depression appears to have strong effects on adolescent behavior. However, the authors state that the results do not prove that a mothers' depression when her children were young caused their behavior when they were older.
These discoveries also add another dimension to previous findings that suggest that teenagers’ behaviors are affected by maternal depression during pregnancy, as well as postpartum depression. Scientists explain that a mother’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels may be increased when depressed, and this may be passed on to the baby through the placenta, affecting its developing brain. They also suggest that genetic factors, which increase a mother’s risk of depression, may be passed on to their babies and influence their mental health.
On the other hand, postpartum depression seems to impact a child’s development because it affects a mother’s ability to respond to her baby’s needs. Teens of less educated and disadvantaged mothers were also more likely to be affected. Researchers explain that more educated moms may have more support and access to childcare, which could reduce the negative effects of their depression on their kids. It is therefore important for clinicians and families to take depression seriously to make sure mothers get help.