Maternal Depression Impacts Children Most In The Preschool Years, Study Says

by Wendy Wisner
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As someone who suffers from a mental health disorder, I am always curious (i.e., worried AF) about how my emotional state is affecting my children as they grow up and what impact it might have on them long-term.

I am a chronic anxiety sufferer, and while I am currently in a pretty decent place in terms of managing it, I never know when it will rear its ugly head and I might spiral into a period of daily panic attacks, sleepless nights, and an inability to function properly — which can often lead to depressive episodes.

Throughout my children’s lives, there have definitely been periods when I battled my anxiety demons daily — where plans were canceled and screens thrown at my children for hours at a time just so I could get myself under control. I was lucky to only suffer from a mild case of postpartum anxiety after my first child was born (I was honestly astonished that it wasn’t worse given my history). But it was during his toddler and preschool years that I entered a period of awful, debilitating panic attacks — maybe the worst I’ve experienced in my life.

That is why I was pretty intrigued freaked out when I came across a recent study that examined the impact of maternal mood disorders on children. The study, recently published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at how maternal prenatal and postpartum depression affects child behavior. The researchers looked at 11,599 families, including 17,830 siblings, all from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort study. The siblings were compared, taking into account their shared genetic risk for depression.

The results were actually quite surprising. Maternal postpartum depression did not seem to have a lasting impact on these children beyond their genetic predisposition to depression. However, the researchers found that maternal depression during the preschool years did have a major effect on children — and possibly a detrimental one.

Line C. Gjerde, the lead author of the study, explains the results on Science Daily: “We found that children of mothers who were depressed before and after birth had more mental health problems because they share risk genes with their mother; however, spending time with a depressed mother in the preschool years can be harmful to the child’s mental health.”

Now, I know to take studies like this with many grains of salt, but I couldn’t help but feel quite a bit uncomfortable with the results. My first child’s preschool years were definitely tainted by my anxiety and depression, and it pains me to think that I might have damaged him as a result. But you can’t turn back time, you know? And all mom guilt definitely needs to go in the trash bin where it belongs.

However, taken in the right vein, studies like this can actually have a positive impact on us all. They remind us that self-care, especially regarding our mental health, is extremely important and must be a priority for all parents.

Gjerde tells Science Daily that we must take postpartum mood disorders seriously when they first emerge so that they don’t go untreated and thereby have negative consequences on our preschoolers. She recommends treatment for postpartum mood disorders as early as possible after birth.

That is something we can all get behind. I believe that if the stirrings of my postpartum anxiety and depression had been addressed more seriously after birth, I may have not been slammed with a more intense episode of anxiety and depression in the preschool years.

The other good news is that our mental health disorders are not all that define our mothering. Another study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, echoed the sentiments that the preschool years are a important moment in a child’s development, but that a mother can also have a positive impact on that child during this time. The study found that children whose mothers were nurturing and supportive during the preschool years had huge positive impacts on their children’s brain growth and emotional development.

In other words, just by being the loving and supportive moms we all are without even trying, we are doing a world of good. So let’s take extra care to be gentle with our rascally threenagers (who knew this truly annoying age was also one of the most important ones in terms of development?), but let’s also remember to go easy on ourselves.

You can’t take care of your children unless you take care of yourself, so if you are suffering from a mental health issue, please get help sooner than later. Remember that we are all doing the best we can as parents, and we all deserve the best support and care out there.