While most mothers are physiologically in sync with their children — matching their emotions and body rhythms — moms with a history of depression do not experience this phenomenon with their kids, according to a new study at Binghamton University in New York.
The findings show that during an interaction between a depressed mom and child, just as one person is becoming more engaged, the other tends to pull away.
While studies have long shown that depression can lead to interpersonal problems with others, this is the first study to examine whether this is also evident physiologically.
“When people are interacting, sometimes you just feel like you’re in sync with somebody, and you know the interaction is going really well and you’re enjoying the conversation. We’re trying to figure out, at the body level, in terms of your physiology, do you see this synchrony in moms and their kids, and then how is that impacted by depression?” said Dr. Brandon Gibb, professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science.
For the study, the researchers measured heart rate variability (a physiological measure of social engagement) in 94 mothers and their children ages seven to 11 as they engaged in positive and negative discussions. A total of 44 mothers had a history of depression, and 50 had no history of depression.
In the first talk session, mom-child pairs planned a dream vacation together; in the second discussion, the duo addressed a recent topic of conflict between them (e.g. homework, using the TV or computer, being on time, problems at school, lying, etc.).
The findings show that non-depressed moms displayed physiological synchrony (similar increases or decreases in heart rate variability) with their children during the negative discussion; however, depressed moms were not in sync with their children.
Furthermore, mothers and children who were more sad during the interaction were more likely to be out of sync with one another. The findings offer preliminary evidence that synchrony during interactions is disrupted at the physiological level in families with a history of maternal depression and may be a potential risk factor for the intergenerational passing-down of depression.
“We found that mothers who had no history of depression were really matching their children’s physiology in the moment,” said graduate student and lead author of the study Mary Woody.
“We saw most moment-to-moment matching in the conflict discussion, in which they were talking about something negative going on in their life. In this difficult discussion, we’re seeing this protective physiological mechanism coming out. Whereas, with mothers with a history of depression and their kids, we’re seeing the opposite — they actually mismatched.”
“As one person is getting more engaged, the other person is pulling away. So they were really missing each other in that moment and walking away from the discussion feeling sad,” said Woody.