Monday, May 08, 2017

Maternal Depression May Reduce Empathy in Children

by Lara Burt
March 1, 2017

Depression is a serious and prevalent public health condition in the United States, particularly among disadvantaged populations. As many as 15 million children live in households with parents who have major or severe depression. Findings from a study conducted by the Urban Institute indicated that among families in poverty, one in nine infants lives with a mother experiencing severe depression and more than half live with a mother experiencing some level of depressive symptoms.

While depression is highly treatable, many mothers do not receive treatment. This is especially true for low-income mothers — more than one-third of those with major depressive disorder get no treatment at all. Many mothers don’t realize there are treatment options or don’t have the money to afford them.

An important and relevant vehicle to promote treatment for maternal depression is the Affordable Care Act, which opened up coverage to many low-income mothers who did not have access to health insurance before. However, if Trump and Congress go through with repealing the ACA, programs addressing family mental health needs, such as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV), could lose their funding and low-income mothers with depression could lose access to treatment and services.

In addition to negatively impacting her own health, a mother’s depression can have long-lasting, harmful effects on the health and well-being of her children. This isn’t surprising considering the large body of evidence that shows the importance of relationships formed between children and adults in the earliest years of life.

Maternal depression has long been known to negatively affect parenting behaviors, child development, and school readiness. But a study published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry was the first to examine maternal depression and early caregiving as long-term predictors of children’s empathy. This study followed children of mothers with depression from birth to age 11 and tested depression’s impact on children’s empathic response to others’ distress.

The study found that children of mothers with depression show disruptions in the development of empathic response to the distress of others. Specifically, the researchers found that the neural reaction to pain in children of depressed mothers stops earlier than in controls, so that they seem to be less able to process others’ distress.


The findings also show the important role mother-child interactions play on this effect. Namely, when the mother and child seemed better attuned to one another and when mothers were less intrusive, children showed higher processing in an area of the brain that is related to socio-cognitive processing. (To measure maternal intrusiveness in this study, the authors looked at constructs such as maternal overriding, forcing, and parent-led interactions). “Depressed mothers are repeatedly found to show less synchronous and more intrusive interactions with their children, and so it might explain some of the differences found between children of depressed mothers and their peer controls in our study,” explained Professor Ruth Feldman, lead author of the study.


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