When people become depressed, it can be tough on those around them; when those people are parents, the stakes are higher. A mother's or father's depression can create a powerful absence in a child’s life and a void of nurturing, supervision, and care. These can have lasting impacts on their children’s emotions and behaviors.
People who are depressed may become less engaged in their own lives and those of their friends, colleagues, and partners. They tend not to participate in shared activities; they find it hard to respond to social invitations, and are unable to perform basic and necessary tasks at work and home. They may be apathetic or angry and impatient.
When a parent becomes depressed, he or she may find it difficult to respond to their children with the energy and attention that children need. This means that not only do their children lose a major source of information and connection, they may consistently be exposed to negative emotions.
Children in middle school are still looking to their parents for input and feedback and appropriate supervision, limit setting, and support.
The child often feels unimportant, uncared for, and may worry about his or her parent. Children with depressed parents are often left to fend for themselves, making decisions and choices without guidance.
What happens when these children who were exposed to parental depression are faced with the sorts of decisions common in adolescence: whether to try drugs, sex or engage in delinquent acts? A recent study looked at how children of depressed mothers negotiated adolescence.
Parental engagement and the quality of the parent-child relationship both impact a teen's tendency to engage in health risk behaviors such as sex, substance use, and delinquency. Adolescence is a time when these behaviors come into play, as teens begin pushing boundaries and experimenting with tempting experiences. What factors influence the choices that teens make?
Studies have demonstrated that when kids live with depressed mothers in middle childhood, they have more difficulty learning strategies for self-regulation including impulse control, decision making, and regulation of aggression.
Other studies have suggested that the age of exposure to maternal depression determined the type of behavioral impact it had. Children as young as 2-5 years old, who had experienced a depressed mother, had an increased risk of emotional disorders later in life.
Canadian researchers investigated the ways exposure to maternal depressive symptoms from ages 4 to 15 might affect teens’ (ages 16-17) ability to make sensible rather than harmful choices about sex, drugs, and delinquent acts. They hypothesized that those teens exposed to depressed mothers during childhood would be more likely to engage in risky behaviors than those not confronting maternal depression.
Adolescents who had been exposed to recurrent maternal depressive symptoms throughout their childhood began their engagement in risky behaviors at earlier ages than their peers.
The team collected data from almost 3000 mother-youth pairs, ages 2 to 5 through ages 16 to 17, using interviews and questionnaires. They asked about maternal mental health, child support, family functioning, child and adolescent behavior, and health risk behaviors.
The key finding: when children are exposed to mothers who are depressed, they are more likely to have greater and earlier engagement in health risk behaviors.
This was particularly true when exposure to a depressed parent occurred in middle childhood (age 9 to 11). These children participated in more health risk behaviors than their peers who were not exposed. And children with depressed mothers in middle school were more likely to engage in both violent and non-violent delinquent behaviors and substance use.
Similarly, adolescents who had been exposed to recurrent maternal depressive symptoms throughout their childhood showed more nonviolent delinquent behaviors than their non-exposed peers. They also began their engagement in risky behaviors at earlier ages than their peers.
Middle childhood is a critical period for cognitive, emotional and social development. “Children may be more sensitive to the symptoms of maternal depression during this age window, resulting in lasting effects for adolescents,” the researchers write. It is a time when children are exploring peer relationships and developing patterns of communication, problem solving, and behaving that may set the stage for the teenage and adult years. Children in middle school are still looking to their parents for input and feedback and appropriate supervision, limit setting, and support.
Parental depression often creates an extra stressful home environment. Basic needs such as regular and healthful meals and family communication are likely to be absent. Depression can lead parents to argue, or give rise to abusive behavior, economic stress, or substance use.
Families can be unwilling to seek help for fear of stigma or repercussions or simply because they feel helpless about the situation. Under such difficult circumstances, children may develop maladaptive survival skills that lead to later mental or physical health problems or delinquency.
No one wants to be depressed. When a person who is a parent is depressed, the repercussions can be especially serious for children, making getting help a family affair. Parents suffering from symptoms of depression should be encouraged to seek treatment. Talk therapy and antidepressants have helped many recover from depression. Early intervention has the potential to change the trajectory of their children's lives.
Children may be more sensitive to the symptoms of maternal depression during this age window, resulting in lasting effects for adolescents.
The study is published in Pediatrics.