How a Mother’s Anxiety and Depression Impacts Children

According to new research findings, maternal symptoms of anxiety and depression increased risks for emotional and problem behaviors in children as early as 18 months of age.

Risks continue into adolescence and also give increased risk of depressive symptoms.

The TOPP study (Tracking Opportunities and Problems in Childhood and Adolescence), from which these findings were taken, is based on questionnaire data on children, adolescents, and their families by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health..

“The findings emphasize the importance of health professionals spotting mental health problems in the mother and/or the child as early as possible, for example when the child attends their regular health check-ups at the health clinic in the early years,” said lead author Wendy Nilsen.

Nilsen explains that the health clinic is a meeting point for over 95 per cent of all Norwegian families with young children.

“This gives health professionals a unique opportunity to introduce early preventive measures against the development of mental health problems,” says Nilsen.

Study Results

When the mother reported high levels of anxiety and depression symptoms early in the children’s lives, the children had a higher risk of emotional and disruptive problem behaviors during their childhood. In addition, the children had a higher risk of reporting depressive symptoms during adolescence.

The association between maternal and later child problem behaviors was already present when the children were 18 months old.

Disruptive and emotional problems and behaviors in the children were not affected by the mothers’ mental health.

The researchers found that there was a tendency for disruptive problem behaviors to be a risk factor for later emotional problems, but not vice versa.

Boys and girls were generally similar with regards to these findings. However, the researchers reported a tendency for problem behaviors in early school age (8.5 years) to be associated with later problems in adolescence for girls, but not for boys.

Paternal mental health in relation to child health is not examined in this study but has been examined in the TOPP-study at later time points.

The results support former findings that also highlight early prevention and intervention.

“This is particularly important when the mother has reported high anxiety and depressive symptoms in the child’s first two years of life. These children had a higher risk of more depressive symptoms in adolescence. Problem behaviors in early life were also associated with later problems in adolescence,” says Nilsen.

The study also highlights the importance of research that follows children and their families from early childhood to adolescence.

“In this way we can gain knowledge about early traits of children and families that increase the likelihood of later mental health problems. This is important knowledge,” says Nilsen.

Original Study

Nilsen, W., Gustavson, K., Kjeldsen, A., Røysamb, E., & Karevold, E.
Pathways from maternal distress and child problem behavior to adolescent depressive symptoms – A prospective examination from 18 months to 17 years of age.
Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, October 2013