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New Study Says Treating Mom Helps Children’s Mental Health

A new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that a child’s depression and poor behavior improves substantially when the mother is successfully treated for depression. According to Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, a coauthor of the study, “If you treat the mother when she is depressed and don’t even go through the process of treating the children of these mothers, they still get better as their mothers get better.”

And they stay well. One year after a mom seeks treatment the kids still show improved behavior.

Figures compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) report that about 2.5 percent of children and up to 8.3 percent of adolescents in the US suffer from depression.

According to Psych Central Senior News Editor Rick Nauert, “The impact on a child as a result of a mother’s illness cannot be underestimated. In this study, researchers learned that children’s improvement, in terms of both depressive symptoms and social functioning, is associated with the time it took their mothers to get better.”

I sort of cringe when I read those facts because it took me two years to get better when I was severely depressed. My kids were the ages of one and three when my symptoms began, and they were three and five when I finally regained some stability. And yes, there were huge behavioral ramifications. Especially in my son. I suspect much of the anxiety he suffers today goes back to that frightening time in his life.

Wall Street Journal columnist Melinda Beck writes about the new study in this week’s “Health Journal.” Beck mentions a report published in the journal Pediatrics that says at early as two months of age a child can be affected by maternal depression. Writes Beck: “Children are particularly vulnerable to parents’ depression in the first year of life when their brains are rapidly forming connections. When parents are withdrawn or unresponsive, attachment and bonding are affected.”

For her well-researched piece, Beck interviewed several experts on this topic, among them Tracy Thompson, who I have featured on Beyond Blue, the author of The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression. Thompson surveyed nearly 400 depressed mothers and found their interactions with their children fell into three categories: emotional or physical withdrawal, acute irritability, and the inability to set limits and impose behavior guidelines. Check. Check. Check.

In the Wall Street Journal article, I offered the analogy of the oxygen mask, when you board a flight. A mom has to secure hers on before she can help her child, because if she runs out of air, both she and her kid are toast. Even if the plane never crashes.

When and how do children get depressed? Beck explains:

Researchers are still debating at what age children experience depression of their own. It can manifest in different ways at different ages.

Young children tend to have anxiety first, then develop depression around puberty, then start substance abuse by late adolescence, says Myrna Weissman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who has long studied depression in families.

Children of depressed parents often have difficulty regulating their own emotions, and many feel responsible for their parents’ well being.

“They’re stressed out because they’re thinking, ‘What can I do to make mommy happy?'” says Carol Berkowitz, a former president of the AAP. “It impacts their self-esteem and it’s the child caring for the parent, rather than the other way around.”

Although I still feel guilty from the years I could not be a loving and nurturing mother, I know that my getting treated was the very best thing I could do for both of my kids, and that my staying resilient is probably far more significant in my kids’ development than any behavioral modification exercises with an expert. And since approximately one-fourth of women suffer from depression during or after pregnancy, we need to continue the discussion regarding maternal depression and its effect on family life.

New Study Says Treating Mom Helps Children’s Mental Health

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). New Study Says Treating Mom Helps Children’s Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.