A Canadian study suggests that a mother’s depression when her child is 6 to 10 years old increases the risk of substance abuse and delinquent behaviors during the child’s adolescence. The study, published in the online edition of Pediatrics, found that teens of mothers who were depressed were more likely to engage in such risky behaviors as violence, smoking and drug and alcohol use than teens whose mothers were not depressed.
For the study, the researchers surveyed 2,910 pairs of mothers and their children. The study started in 1994 when the children were between 2 and 4 years of age and ended in 2009 when they were aged 16 to 17.
Study questionnaires asked the mothers about their feelings, their partners, and their children’s social environment. Mothers completed their children’s questionnaires until they reached the age of ten when the kids began filling out their own questionnaires. As teens, they were asked to identify the substances they’d used, whether they had ever stolen anything, carried a weapon, had sex and engaged in fighting or other risky behaviors.
Findings showed that about 4 percent of the surveyed mothers had experienced depression during their kids’ middle childhood years. Researchers reported the children of depressed mothers were twice as likely to smoke or use marijuana, 1.4 times more likely to use alcohol and three times more likely to use hallucinogens.
Teens whose mothers had experienced depression when they were 6 to 10 were also more likely to have episodes of fighting, stealing, carrying a weapon, attacking someone or selling drugs.
The study authors concluded that “middle childhood is an important time for social and emotional development, and parents are important role models for fostering healthy development. This may be difficult when a parent is depressed.”
Social worker Seanna Crosbie, director of program and trauma-informed services at Austin Child Guidance Center in Austin, Texas, agreed.
“It is during this stage that children gain approval from parents and teachers by exhibiting competencies and activities that are valued by society,” Crosbie told HealthDay. This is the time when they develop a sense of pride and mastery in their skills, she explained.
“If children do not receive positive feedback and encouragement from their environment, they may develop a sense of low self-esteem and inferiority,” said Crosbie. And if a depressed parent cannot provide a child with positive feedback or meet the child’s psychological needs, it can likely “lead the child to engage in high-risk behaviors as they move towards adolescence.”
In their conclusion, the authors acknowledged that their study does not prove maternal depression leads to risky behaviors and point to the possibility of genetic and environmental influences on their results. However, these factors “would be unlikely to explain the timing-specific effects,”said study co-author Ian Colman, PhD, faculty of medicine, department of epidemiology and community medicine at the University of Ottawa.
Ultimately, the authors see their study as good reason for mothers who are suffering from depression to seek help for themselves.