Kids can catch parents' stress, studies find

April 09, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

THERE WAS A PLAQUE that hung in my mother-in-law's kitchen for all the years I knew her: "If Momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

Turns out she was more right than she knew.

A pair of recently released studies demonstrate that depression in mothers can negatively affect their children, and that treatment of their symptoms or relief of the stresses that are causing their depression mean only good things for the kids.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that treating a mother's depression can help prevent depression and anxiety disorders in her children.

In the study, the children whose mothers were treated aggressively for their depression were much less likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or behavior problems than those whose mothers were not treated or who were not treated successfully.

Depression runs in families, but it can be triggered by life circumstances. According to the author of the study, Myrna Weissman of Columbia University and New York Psychiatric Institute, effective treatment for the mothers meant that the symptoms might not show up in the children.

"It's a two-fer," she told the Associated Press. "The impact is not only on them, but it's also on their children."

A separate study, which did not deal with the biomedical nature of depression or its treatment, found that the children of mothers who were in difficult -- or depressing -- life circumstances were more likely to do poorly in school and to misbehave.

Among the factors that caused the mothers to report being depressed were a lower education level, income and financial problems, work stresses (such as long hours) and difficulty in their primary relationships.

"Our study makes the point that economic factors matter and relationship satisfaction also matters," said Kristin Anderson Moore, one of the authors of the study for Child Trends, a research group.

"It would be so nice if you could just give these women a pill, but it is not that simple. A pill helps many people, but not everyone."

While one study deals with the biological origins of depression and the other deals with its environmental triggers, they share a conclusion:

Address the depression in the mother -- through medical intervention or social policy -- and her children will have a brighter future. The children will do better in math and reading, as well as in self-control.

"All of these things have implications for the children," said Moore. "People don't necessarily think of how these things affect the children."

And the impact is primarily in the mother's ability to be an effective parent.

If the mother is undereducated, she is likely to have to work longer hours for less and to have job stresses and financial problems. She is also likely to have learned fewer parenting skills.

If she and her partner are aggravating each other, they are less likely to have the patience to deal with a child who is doing poorly in school or misbehaving.

"You can pick any place to intervene, and you are likely to have a positive impact on the mother and the child," said Moore, speaking in terms of public policy.

The plaque on my mother-in-law's kitchen wall also said this: "If Daddy ain't happy, nobody cares."

That part was wrong.

Child Trends is preparing a report that shows the effect of depression in the father, how it sours his relationship with his partner and causes him to withdraw from interacting with the child.

"The public needs to understand that it does matter," said Moore. "It matters for the children."

...................... susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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