Is Depression In Parents Making Their Kids Wild?


By Michael O. Schroeder

Experts say a parent’s depression can have a profound, lasting impact on a child.

Kids test boundaries – it’s a normal part of development. Whether a child has developed a reputation for defying authority or is more demure, reward-seeking behavior – including doing things that bring pleasure but also involve risk – ramps up in adolescence.

Brain scans glimpse the fireworks from the inside, finding increased activation in a region of the brain associated with reward processing called the ventral striatum. “Adolescents tend to show heightened activation in the ventral striatum compared to any other age group,” says Eva Telzer, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This is thought to be related to a lot of the things happening during adolescence – whether it’s sensation-seeking or seeking out new roles, relationships, gaining greater autonomy … it certainly has adaptive purposes.”

But research led by University of Illinois graduate student Yang Qu with Telzer found kids whose parents reported being depressed showed even more activity in this area of the brain. “If your parents have greater depressive symptoms you are more likely to show increases in the activation involving risk-taking,” Qu says of the study published in August in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

So while adolescents are already programmed toward reward-seeking behavior, the higher activation seen in kids of depressed parents shows they might be more inclined toward rewards that are not healthy, Telzer says, from substance abuse or risky sexual behaviors to dangerous driving. And kids of depressed parents are more likely to exhibit other behavioral problems as well, including acting out at home and school, which can inhibit learning and social development. The findings suggest, she says, that depressive symptoms in a parent could have long-lasting effects on a child via changes that occur in the child's brain.

“We don’t know whether it’s irreversible or not, but we certainly know that the brain is very flexible and adapts to its environment,” Telzer says. “So presumably given that we find that parental depression affects changes in the brain, we can think of the opposite happening – that increasing the supportive nature of the family, that decreases in that depression can … change the brain in a more positive and adaptive way.”

Myrna Weissman, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, says an important takeaway from research evaluating the impact of parental depression on kids is the difference treatment of a parent can make for the child. “If the depressed mother gets treated, and treated successfully, her children’s symptoms are reduced,” she says. That includes improvements in a child’s symptoms of depression, reduction in so-called externalizing disorders, or those involving disruptive behavior – like conduct disorder – and acting out. The impact of paternal depression on children has not been studied, in part because men suffer depression at lower rates and are less likely to come in for treatment, Weissman says. But experts advise any dad or mom suffering from depression to seek treatment, whether that involves therapy, medication or both.

In addition to how adolescents may react in the home of a depressed parent, having a family history of depression raises the risk that a person will develop depression during their lifetime. Research Weissman led published in August finds that biological offspring with two previous generations affected by major depression had the highest risk of developing depression themselves. In previous research, she’s also found that children of depressed parents had a higher rate of death from unnatural causes – from suicide to accidents, including car crashes, to overdoses – with the onset of depression most commonly occurring between the ages of about 15 to 25.

A parent doesn't need to have been clinically diagnosed with major depression for it to affect a child, either. In the University of Illinois study, parents self-reported very low to moderate depression. In that example, parents’ depressive symptoms weren’t associated with higher rates of depression in their adolescent children, as is typically the case with major depression – but it still had an impact, researchers say.

“A key strength of the study is that it measures brain function in the offspring over time, giving a window into adolescent brain development,” Dr. Jonathan Posner, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University, who wasn't involved in the University of Illinois research, said in an email. He calls it a well-done study, though he notes weaknesses include the study’s reliance on self-reporting by parents and kids. “It would [be] useful to have the parents' and/or teachers' view of the adolescents' risky behaviors, as would more comprehensive psychiatric assessments of parent and offspring,” he says. Among other study limitations, University of Illinois researchers point out that more research is needed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship that explains the apparent association between parents’ depression and risk-taking-related brain changes in children.

What’s clear, say researchers and clinicians, is that a parent’s depression can have a profound impact on a child in the short and long term and shouldn’t be overlooked while the child is still in the home. The way parents who are depressed act toward their children can influence their kids’ problematic behaviors, says Kate Fogarty, an associate professor of youth development at University of Florida in Gainesville. That ranges, experts say, from being less warm and less affectionate to being more irritable. “Depressed parents may be very quick to punish children, rather than explain or guide, which produces much more [lasting] positive behaviors,” Fogarty adds.

Family and mental health experts say it’s important to talk about struggles that may tax relationships between parents and kids. “Tell the children that you're not having much energy, seeming disinterested, feeling hopeless, has nothing to do with them,” Weissman says. “That you’re getting treatment [and] you still love them, it’s just hard for you right now.”

For those in the midst of a severe depressive episode, family and mental health experts say having another adult temporarily help with parenting duties, if possible, can bridge the disruption for kids. “One parent, or even grandparent, can help offset those effects,” Fogarty says.

Above all, experts emphasize that for parents struggling with depression who are worried about their children, it’s a fluid situation – for worse or better. “Take care of yourself first, and get treatment,” Weissman stresses. “If one treatment doesn’t work, get another treatment, but get asymptomatic, because it will improve things very much at home and also in your own life.”


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