A bidirectional relationship was detected between moms’ mental health and children’s mental health. Parental stress was linked to maternal depression and children’s mental health issues. These studies provide information on family interventions for mental health.
Medically reviewed by Dr K on 22nd June 2022.
Skip to Your Favourite Part:
Parental Stress Is A Key Contributor To Childrens Mental Illness Development
Parenting stress may be tough to handle, and it requires work to keep it from affecting your children.
According to recent research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, maternal depression is connected with the development of depression and anxiety symptoms in children and is triggered by parental stress.
This study used secondary analysis of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study to examine anxiety and depression symptoms in both mothers and children over a ten-year period.
Source - Michigan Health Lab - Michigan Medicine
This long-term study was based on an analysis of interviews with the parents of 4,898 children born between 1998 and 2017 in 75 hospitals across 20 major cities in the United States.
The researchers discovered that the link between a mother's depression and childhood depression was true in both ways. That is, higher levels of mother depression predicted higher levels of depression and anxiety in children, whereas higher levels of depression and anxiety in children indicated later maternal depression. Parental stress was a major contributor to this maternal depression, which caused depression and anxiety symptoms in children.
In this study, depressed mothers reported feeling less attached to their children, more concerned about raising children, and less parenting support from their spouse, and were more likely to feel that their children were less acceptable and viewed parenting as less personally rewarding.
While this longitudinal study comprised a large ethnically varied sample, its reliance on parent reports to determine children's mental health rather than clinical assessments was a drawback of this research.
Family And Mental Health Are Often Intertwined
Amy Nasamran, PhD, a licensed psychologist and parenting consultant at Atlas Psychology, says Verywell, “The key takeaway here is that parent and child mental health are often intertwined and strongly related.“
“This is no surprise, given that children's development depends so much on their parents. Children learn about the world from their parents. They learn a lot from watching and observing how their parents handle stress and life's challenges," says Nasamran.
Nasamran emphasises that parents are the primary carers and sources of support for children, citing long-standing studies on how parents' mental health may effect children's mental health. “Parents with mental health challenges, like anxiety or depression, can face unique challenges keeping up with the demands of parenting," she says.
As stated in the research, Nasamran states, “One manifestation of this may be difficulty providing the level of warmth and support that kids often require at that age, which can impact a child's mental health and wellbeing.“
Nasamran says, “While we know that mental health needs have significantly skyrocketed during the pandemic, an important point that this study sheds light on is the importance of addressing parental stress, the mental health needs of family units, and the systems in which a child lives.“
While treatment for children is necessary and may be helpful, Nasamran believes that therapy approaches that include both parents and children can be an effective strategy to handle the mental health needs of the whole family.
“A child's mental health starts with parent mental health, and making sure parents have the support and resources they need can make a huge difference in a child's mental health development too.“
When he says that children are like sponges, Nasamran means that they may take up on a lot more from their parents than is often assumed. “Their mental health depends on a lot more than what they can get from working with a therapist for an hour each week," she says.
A child's mental health starts with parent mental health, and making sure parents have the support and resources they need can make a huge difference in a child's mental health development too. — Amy Nasamran, PhD
Nasamran highlights, “One of my favourite evidence-based therapy approaches to working with families is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) as parents and children attend therapy and learn skills together.“
The detection of a cyclical and bi-directional relationship between a parent and child's mental health was a unique aspect of this research, as she adds that children's mental health symptoms of anxiety and depression also influenced mothers' future mental health.
Nasamran says, “A caveat of this study was that it focused on single-parent households and parents who were at a greater socioeconomic disadvantage. In general, we know that both of these factors already contribute significant sources of stress for parents.“
Nasamran says that these parent-child dyads may have been more sensitive to anxiety and depression since parenting may be considerably more burdensome when you are the lone caregiver and lack resources due to financial constraints.
Nasamran explains, “As a child psychologist, I often see parents bring children in for treatment, and that's a wonderful step. But parents can be inclined to overlook their own needs, especially when children struggle.“
In this way, Nasamran notes that it is crucial for parents to think about their mental health and ability to support their children. “Stressed parents will have a harder time helping stressed children," she says.
She suggests that parents who prioritise and take care of their own mental health issues first, or maybe concurrently, would be in a better mental state to model healthy coping skills for their children.
Protective Factors Are Important
Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and programme coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center, tells Verywell. “This study provided longitudinal information that explained the impact of parental depression and stress on the child over a 15 year period.“
Mendez discusses how protective factors including secure parent-child connection, early intervention for the kid, parenting training assistance, mental health care for the parent, stress management training, and family counselling may enhance results.
While the research shows how parent-child interactions influence mental health effects and outcomes throughout the child's developmental stages, Mendez emphasises that the bidirectional impact of mental health determinants from a developmental viewpoint continues until adolescence.
“It is important for the public to be aware of protective factors to promote interpersonal, relational, and familial well-being even in the face of challenges such as exposure to depression, anxiety, and stress," says Mendez.
She points out that there has been a lot of studies done on parent-child mental health concerns over the last two decades. “This study magnifies the importance of the parent-child relationship and validates the global connections that inform risk and resiliency factors in the development and transmission of mental health wellness as well as challenges," she says.
Mendez suggests raising public knowledge about the need for mental health treatment in preventing and mitigating unfavourable results. “More emphasis on parenting wellness programs such as mindfulness, stress reduction programs, positive imagery, and healthy lifestyle choices can result in successful self-care, stress management, and parent modelling of effective coping options for the child," she says.
This study magnifies the importance of the parent-child relationship and validates the global connections that inform risk and resiliency factors in the development and transmission of mental health wellness as well as challenges.
— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT
Mendez comments that while this research is consistent with the literature on the subject, “The parent-child variables are the most important to understand as within the relationship is where there is the greatest impact for growth, development, and well-being as well as adverse influences.“
Mendez highlights, “A caveat is that little emphasis has been given to the topic of resiliency. The fact is that most children raised by parents diagnosed with depression do not experience major negative consequences.“
Mendez observes that resilience is best influenced by the link and stable bonding between caregiver and child, “the formation of secure attachment provides the foundation for resiliency that mitigates adverse experiences and promotes the development of positive coping skills for the child and strengthens the parenting foundation of the caregiver.“
Mendez argues that although issues such as depression and anxiety might interfere with normal functioning, the parent-child connection may benefit from intervention. “There is strength in the seeking of help when needed and the outlook for positive outcomes heighten," she says.
Mendez notes, “In my work, when parents understand that the engagement between them and their child is foundational to the overall wellness of the family, then the individuals and the family functioning thrives.“
Mendez adds that when attention is diverted from a key problem, such as symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health difficulties, people and families are compromised and suffer.
Because depression and anxiety can be caused by a complicated interaction of genes, environment, and social-emotional competence, Mendez advocates developing self-confidence and competence, controlling stress, and pursuing emotional stability in order to alleviate mental health difficulties.
What This Means For You
According to the findings of this study, elevated parental stress may lead to anxiety and depression in children. As a result, Nasamran believes that “Lowering parental stress may be the most important step when it comes to addressing a child's mental health.“
- Daundasekara S, Beauchamp J, Hernandez D. Parenting stress mediates the longitudinal effect of maternal depression on child anxiety/depressive symptoms. J Affect Disord. 2021;295:33-39. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2021.08.002
- ScienceDaily. Parental stress is a contributing factor linking maternal depression to child anxiety and depressive symptoms.
- CDC. Mental health of children and parents – a strong connection.
- CDC. Coping with stress.
- Mental Health America. Parenting with a mental health condition.
- Regis College. What impact does parental mental health have on children?
- PCIT International. What is parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)?
- Mindful. How mindful parenting differs from just being mindful.
- Pathways to Family Wellness. Attachment and the development of resilience.
- Van Ryzin MJ, Leve LD, Neiderhiser JM, Shaw DS, Natsuaki MN, Reiss D. Genetic influences can protect against unresponsive parenting in the prediction of child social competence. Child Dev. 2015 May-Jun;86(3):667-80. doi:10.1111/cdev.12335