Feb. 7, 2005 -- A mother's depression can lead to behavior problems in her children, says a new study.
Children with depressed moms are significantly more likely to show antisocial behavior at age 5 and 7 years, says a report in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. That's all the more reason for mothers to seek treatment for depression, say the researchers, who included Julia Kim-Cohen, PhD, of King's College London.
Effective depression treatments are available. Judging by the study's findings, mothers seeking help for depression wouldn't just improve their own lives. They might also see a positive impact on their children's behavior.
"For some depressed mothers, effective treatment for depression should lead to secondary benefits for their children," write the researchers.
Probing Depression's Family Ties
It's hard to say what makes children misbehave. The researchers knew that kids of depressed mothers often have behavior problems, but they didn't know why.
Was it because depression decreased their mothers energy, making parenting tougher? Or did some depressed mothers also have antisocial personality traits that influenced kids' behavior? Did depressed moms pass on a genetic liability for antisocial behavior?
Those were among the theories explored in the study. Data came from more than 1,100 sets of British twins and their mothers.
The mothers were about 33 years old at the study's start. They were asked if they'd ever had depression, and about their kids' behavior. The children's teachers were also interviewed for another perspective on the kids' conduct.
Most of the moms -- 728 -- said they had never been depressed. The rest were asked when their depression occurred. For 68 women, depression happened only before the birth of their twins. For 193, depression started after their twins were born. Another 124 women were depressed both before and after giving birth to their twins.
The mothers were also asked about their own behavior and that of the twins' biological fathers. Questions covered antisocial traits like recklessness, irresponsibility, illegal behavior, impulsivity, aggressiveness, and deceitfulness.
Kids' antisocial behavior included lying, swearing, stealing, physically attacking someone, and having a hot temper. Such conduct was significantly more common at age 7 when children's mothers had suffered depression during the child's first five years of life.
The connection was only significant for depression that was present after the birth of the twins. Maternal depression ending at or before the twins' birth didn't affect kids' behavior.
The worst effect occurred when mothers were depressed and also showed signs of antisocial behavior. Having more bouts of maternal depression made kids' antisocial behavior more likely. The kids' genes don't fully explain the link, say the researchers. They didn't have access to the fathers' depression history, but they estimate that parents' genes only accounted for about a third of the connection between maternal depression and kids' antisocial behavior.
Women with depression and antisocial traits may need extra help, say the researchers. They suggest that clinicians treating behavior disorders in children might want to screen the children's mothers for depression and antisocial history, designing solutions that include the whole family.