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The Effect on Children When a Mother Is Depressed or Anxious

Two new studies point to the effects on children of parents' emotional state.

Key points

  • Many in the mental health treatment field continue to over-emphasize nature over nurture.
  • A new study showed that depressed mothers had specific effects on offspring that are likely due to mother-child interactions.
  • A second new study showed differential effects of having an anxious mother vs. an anxious father depending on the sex of the child.
 Depressed_girl_by_brick_wall by U314168 CC share alike 4.0
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Depressed_girl_by_brick_wall by U314168 CC share alike 4.0

The Role of Interactions with Parents vs. Genes in Repetitive Emotional Reaction Patterns

The nature-nurture debate in science continues unabated, especially in psychiatry. When it comes to certain repetitive emotional reactions shown by a given individual, many in the field prefer to believe that the individual was just born that way. The truth, as described in Robert Sapolsky's excellent book Behave, is that we have hundreds of genes that make certain behaviors either a little more or a little less likely. No complex human behavior is determined entirely by a gene or group of genes. We are also strongly programmed to tend to react in certain ways based on the behavior of our kin group, although we can still make the difficult choice not to once we reach a certain age.

There is without a doubt a strong genetic component to some brain diseases, like Major Depressive Disorder and schizophrenia, but many other emotional reaction patterns seem to be far more affected by the family environment than by any specific genes.

Two New Studies Focus on the Effects of Parental Depression or Anxiety on Offspring

Some studies do point in this direction, including two that have come out recently. First, in a recent study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Judith Morgan, Ph.D., recruited 49 children aged six to eight without a history of psychiatric illness. Half the kids' mothers had a history of clinical depression, and half had no psychiatric history. To measure reward-related brain activity, children played a video game in which they guessed which of two doors contained a hidden token while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Depression may disrupt parents' capacity to enable emotional socialization, a process by which kids learn from their parents' reactions to their emotional responses. Positive socialization responses include acknowledgment, imitation, and elaboration, whereas negative or emotionally dampening parental responses may be dismissive, invalidating, or punitive.

Mothers participating in the study completed an extensive questionnaire designed to measure parental emotional socialization by presenting a dozen situational vignettes of children's displays of positive emotions and collecting parents' reactions to them. Children with a maternal history of depression were more likely to have reduced reward-related activity in a part of their brains that handles this, but only if their mothers reported less enthusiastic and more dampening responses to their children's positive emotions, the researchers found.

"In our study, mothers' own history of depression by itself was not related to altered brain responses to reward in early school-age children," Morgan said. "Instead, this history had an influence on children's brain responses only in combination with mothers' parenting behavior, such as the ability to acknowledge, imitate, or elaborate on their child's positive emotions."

In a second study, same-sex parents seemed to have more of an effect on anxiety disorders in their offspring than the opposite-sex parent, again suggesting environmental issues were possibly more important than genes. Semi-structured interviews were used to establish lifetime diagnoses of anxiety disorder in parents and offspring. The association between anxiety disorder in the same-sex or opposite-sex parent and anxiety disorders in the offspring was tested. Anxiety disorders in the same-sex parent were associated with increased rates of anxiety disorders in the offspring, whereas anxiety disorders in the opposite-sex parent were not. Sharing a household with a same-sex parent without anxiety was associated with lower rates of offspring anxiety but the presence of an opposite-sex parent without anxiety was not.


Maternal Response to Positive Affect Moderates the Impact of Familial Risk for Depression on Ventral Straital Response to Winning Reward in 6-8 Year-Old Children.” Morgan, J., Eckstrand, K., Silk, J, Olino,T., Landouceur, C., Forbes, E. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. January 28, 2022.

Sex-Specific Transmission of Anxiety Disorders From Parents to Offspring. Barbara Pavlova, PhD1,2; Alexa Bagnell, MD1,3; Jill Cumby, MN2; et al. JAMA Network Open, July 12, 2022.

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