Depression: The Innocent Victims

Depression in moms can lead to problems in their children, including anxiety, depression or disruptive behavior. But research has found that once the mother is treated, the rate of problems in her children drops significantly.

Depression has numerous implications for a woman's own health, including a significantly higher risk of suicide, heart disease and osteoporosis. But, not surprisingly, it can also seriously impact her children.

"If a mother is depressed, we know that half of her children will have some behavior problem," says Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Columbia University in New York City, who has studied the impact of a parent's depression on children. She has found that children of depressed mothers are two to three times more likely to have behavioral problems, anxiety or depression themselves than kids whose mothers are not depressed.

Certainly some of this is related to genetics, she says; but genes aren't the whole story.

"What's required to trigger these problems in kids is environmental stress," Weissman says. And having a depressed mother can be incredibly stressful to kids. "If you're depressed, you don't have energy, you feel hopeless and it's very hard to take care of children because they're very demanding."

It's also very hard to listen to your kids because you don't have much of an attention span, and you're more likely to be irritable and even lash out at your children.

In fact, the effect of a depressed mom on her children is so significant that it can even cause depression in infants, says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and author of Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Mothering Stress, Depression and Burnout. That's because depressed mothers are not as responsive to their infant's cues, which is incredibly stressful to the baby. "Babies just shut down if they don't get a response," she says.

The depressed mother disengages from her older child just as she does from her infant, Kendall-Tackett adds. And when she does engage with them, that interaction is more likely to be angry and intrusive, which can sidetrack the relationship.

Depression in a parent can also result in children becoming caregivers. "The kids are forced to grow up and take care of the parent," she explains. "They're always trying to engage the parent and assess her mood. It puts kids in this parental role that isn't healthy.

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