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Mothers' depression may increase mental health risks in children, study finds

Experts are worried about children developing anxiety and depression

Sad mother and son hugging
Photo (c) Esther Moreno Martinez EyeEm - Getty Images
Parents who struggle with maintaining their mental health have a higher chance of having children that face the same problems. That’s one of the takeaways from a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center. 

The team found that mothers who struggle with depression have a higher chance of raising children who develop their own mental health issues.  

“By focusing on mother-child duos, we identified that maternal depression at an earlier time point predicted child anxiety and depressive symptoms at a later time point,” said researcher Daphne Hernandez, Ph.D. “Further, children who experienced anxiety and depressive symptoms at an earlier time point were more likely to have mothers who experienced depression at later time points.” 

Children and parents share mental health struggles

The researchers analyzed data from over 1,400 mother-child duos enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study. Over the course of 10 years, the researchers checked in on the participants’ mental health three times and explored how the two were related. 

The researchers learned that mothers’ mental health is closely linked with their children’s mental health. When mothers experienced depression-related symptoms, their children were more likely to also struggle with their own mental health at any of the check-in points during the study. The opposite was also true – when children were dealing with anxiety or depression symptoms, their parents were more likely to experience similar symptoms. 

The researchers explained that the connection between maternal depression and children’s anxiety and depression is still unclear. However, they believe the stress of being a parent may prevent some mothers from developing warm, meaningful relationships with their children. This may, in turn, make anxiety and depression more likely. 

With a better understanding of the mother-child mental health relationship, the researchers hope resources and treatments can be tailored to benefit all family members. 

“A dual intervention, where both mother and child are receiving treatment together, in addition to their separate treatment plans, may be a successful approach for families where mothers and children exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Dr. Hernandez said. “Most importantly, implementing strategies to lower parental stress is vital.” 

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