Depressed Mothers and Their Children

Numerous studies show that the children of depressed parents are at high risk for developing depression, anxiety disorders, and health and academic problems (Beardslee, 2011). The children’s problems often continue as they mature into adults (Weissman, 2006). However, recent studies are uncovering the best points of intervention for this cycle. 

New research shows that successful treatment of a depressed mother to remission is associated with reduction of symptoms in her children (Weissman, Pilowsky, Garber, Swartz, Wickramaratne, 2005). The type of treatment the mother receives—medication or psychotherapy—did not appear to matter. The important ingredient is the mother’s remission. These results endured during the year after maternal remission. However, the results were not consistent across all groups. Children of single and/or anxious mothers had the lowest rate of maternal remission and poorest child outcomes, even if the mother remitted (Talati, 2007).

One point of intervention is when the depressed mother comes in for treatment. A new study shows frequent problems in children of mothers seeking treatment for depression. The study, which spanned two countries (United States and Canada) with different ethnic, racial and economic groups, showed about 40 percent of the children were having problems—usually depression, anxiety, or behavioral problems—at the time when the mother came for treatment herself (Batten, 2012).

The paper concluded with the following pieces of clinical guidance:

  • “Children and adolescents, aged 7 to 17 years, of mothers coming for the treatment of depression are of high-risk for having psychiatric symptoms and behavioral problems.
  • Clinicians treating depressed mothers should inquire about the children’s emotional state and about behavioral problems.
  • Monitoring of the child’s symptoms during the course of the mother’s treatment is warranted.
  • Referral for treatment of the child should be considered if the child’s symptoms are not alleviated after a remission of maternal depression.
  • Comorbid maternal anxiety disorders or severe maternal depression may be associated with increased problems in the children.”

Future studies should also include depressed fathers and their children.