Mother's depression associated with increased risk of child's antisocial behavior


CHICAGO Significantly higher levels of antisocial behavior were found in seven-year-old children whose mothers were depressed during the child's first five years of life, according to an article in the February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

"Children of depressed mothers have elevated conduct problems, presumably because maternal depression disrupts the caregiving environment," according to background information in the article. Researchers have identified three possible explanations for the association between a mother's depression and antisocial behavior (ASB) in their children: 1) depressed women are likely to have antisocial personality traits related to depression, 2) are likely to bear children with antisocial men, 3) and the children of depressed mothers may inherit a genetic predisposition for antisocial disorders.

Julia Kim-Cohen, Ph.D., from King's College London, and colleagues investigated the association between maternal depression and children's ASB. Participants were members of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, which examined how genetic and environmental factors affected the development of 1,116 sets of twins in England and Wales. The mothers categorized the timing of their depression as: never depressed (n = 728), depressed only before twins' birth (n = 68), depressed only after twins' birth (n = 193), and depressed before and after twins' birth (n = 124). Children's ASB at ages five and seven was determined from mother and teacher reports.

The researchers found that children of mothers who were depressed during the child's first five years of life had significantly higher ASB levels at seven years of age. A mother's depression taking place after the children's birth was associated with children's ASB, although depression before the children's birth was not. Maternal depression combined with symptoms of antisocial personality disorder in mothers posed the greatest risk for children's ASB.

"We found that familial liability for ASB accounted for approximately one third of the observed association between maternal depression and children's ASB," the authors write. "However, our findings also suggested that children exposed to maternal depression were significantly likely to have conduct problems through a risk process that operates environmentally over any contributions of their parents' antisocial personality."

(Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005; 62: 173 181. Available post-embargo at

Editor's Note: This study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health Training Program in Emotion Research, Bethesda, Md. (Dr. Kim-Cohen), and a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award (Dr. Moffit, co-author). The E-Risk Study is funded by a grant from the UK Medical Research Council, London.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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