Children whose mothers are depressed after childbirth may be at elevated risk for violence

Children whose mothers are depressed after childbirth are at elevated risk for violence by age 11, especially if the mothers suffered repeated depression, according to new research involving British families. The study also finds that in contrast to their peers, children whose mothers had been depressed at three months postpartum showed more diverse and severe aggressive behaviors than other children. The findings appear in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

As part of an ongoing, longitudinal study of child development, researcher Dale F. Hay, Ph.D., of Cardiff University and colleagues studied 122 families living in two communities in South London to see what affect the mother’s postnatal depression has on the development of children’s violent behavior. The participants were representative of urban populations in contemporary Britain. Mothers were interviewed during pregnancy, at three months postpartum and when the child was one, four and 11 years old. Mothers, teachers and children were questioned about violent symptoms when the child was 11.

As expected, the researchers found that most children in the study were not violent. However, those children who had mothers that had been depressed in the months after childbirth were more violent than other children, especially if the depression occurred at three months postpartum and at least once thereafter. The violence was more common in boys at age 11 than girls and mostly involved fighting with peers. The fighting often led to injury and suspension from school.

The link between postnatal depression and violence at age 11 was associated with the children’s problems in regulating attention and emotion, according to the study. Specifically, children of depressed mothers were also angry and inattentive at age 11, and these tendencies were linked to their propensity for violence. “Previous research has found that problems in regulating one’s attention and activity and in managing anger and responses to frustration are associated with violent behavior and various disruptive behavior disorders, and our study suggests that is what is taking place here,” says Dr. Hay.

The results of this and similar studies make clear that the mother’s mental state after childbirth is an easily identifiable risk factor for her child’s intellectual and social development, according to the authors. What is not clear is the mechanism which this risk factor exerts its influence. It’s possible that the attention and emotional problems shown by the children of depressed mothers had biological origins, possibly related to hormonal mechanisms at work. “It is also possible that babies with heritable difficult temperament provoke depression in their mothers and that the child’s later violence is entirely explained by preexisting factors within the child,” write the researchers.

Whether cause or effect, “it is clear that postnatal depression is an important clinical marker for the child’s later problems, and a child’s capacity for violence can be predicted with some reliability in the months after birth, say the authors. “Although it appears that violence is not an inevitable outcome of postnatal depression, it is one that is made more likely under conditions of continued adversity. Early and recurring exposure to maternal depression puts children at risk for the overt pathway toward serious violence.”

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