Researchers Observe Bi-Directional Relationship Between Maternal Depression and Child Anxiety or Depression

A bi-directional relationship exists between the mental health symptoms of a mother and those of her child – mediated by parental stress – according to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas.

Mother With Baby

Mother With Baby

Prior to the new research that appeared in the Journal of Affective Disorders, there was no concrete evidence on the existence of the observed relationship.

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Researchers explored data spanning over a decade to uncover the bi-directional relationship that sees a mother’s mental health symptoms impacting those of her child, and vice versa. Their study suggests that parental stress explains, at least partially, this relationship.

Parental or parenting stress is the distress parents experience when they feel confronted with too many demands of parenthood while having limited resources. It does not only result from insufficient financial resources but also marital problems and a lack of social support.

The study

For their research, the team from Cizik School of Nursing at The University of Texas Health Center Houston carried out a secondary analysis on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (or simply Fragile Families).

This major study started at Princeton and Columbia universities in the period between 1998 and 2000. Its aim was to explore what effects familial relationships of unmarried parents can have on their children.

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The Fragile Families study has proven very useful for researchers across America that are trying to understand family and relationship dynamics.

At three different time points, researchers in the current study examined maternal depression, child anxiety or depressive symptoms, and parental stress. The time points were Year 5, Year 9, and Year 15.

The team found that maternal depression experiences make it more likely for mothers to find parenting to be crushing. This could give rise to the absence of affection and increased hostility in the family environment. In turn, hostility and lack of love can have adverse effects on a child’s mental health.

“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 point,” said Daphne Hernandez, Ph.D., senior study author, and the Lee and Joseph Jamail Distinguished Professor at the Cizik School of Nursing. “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.”

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Application of findings

This study provides new insights into how the mental health state of a mother can affect her child and vice versa. It could help to better grasp how anxiety and depression develop in families.

Doctors can use the findings as a guide for treatment in cases where both mothers and their children are having anxiety and/or depressive symptoms.

Hernandez said their findings suggest that dual interventions that involve mothers and their children receiving treatment together could prove a valuable approach. This can be an addition to distinct treatment plans for a mother and her child.

It is even more crucial to apply strategies that can help to reduce parental stress, the senior study author added.




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