Existing research has identified a clear link between depression and stress in children of depressed mothers. Additionally, research has shown that stressful environmental conditions can also increase the chance of depression in children. But until recently, few studies have looked at the stress generation pathway through which stressors directly predict depression and stress in children of depressed mothers compared to children of nondepressed mothers. To explore this relationship further and examine gender differences in this pathway, Constance L. Hammen, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles examined data from a 20-year study involving 705 families.
Hammen followed the mothers while they were pregnant and interviewed them several times through their child’s 5th birthday. She evaluated the stressful conditions of the environment, levels of maternal depression, and other adversities. As the children matured, Hammen continued to assess them for depression and stress until they reached age 20.
Hammen’s study revealed several interesting findings. As evidenced from previous research, Hammen found that difficult life conditions during early childhood predicted extreme stress in adulthood. She also found that chronic stress in adolescence was a significant risk factor for chronic stress in adulthood. With regards to depression, the study revealed that adolescent depression predicted adult stress and adolescent stress predicted adult depression. Hammen believes that maternal depression may contribute to early life stressors for children. These experiences can make children more vulnerable to later stressful situations in life by way of poor academic, environmental, or behavioral choices. Hammen did, however, find a difference in the gender pathway. Specifically, girls were more likely than boys to be depressed, regardless of the mental health of their mothers. However, maternal depression directly increased the risk for depression in the boys. Hammen believes that many of these children enter adulthood with a history that predisposes their offspring for mental health problems. She added, “Youth with histories of maternal depression, stress, and depression reach their childbearing years at risk for further depression, potentially recreating the cycle with the next generation.” The findings clearly demonstrate the need for addressing and preventing the perpetuation of stress and depression in those individuals most at risk.
Hammen, C. L., Hazel, N. A., Brennan, P. A., Najman, J. (2012). Intergenerational transmission and continuity of stress and depression: Depressed women and their offspring in 20 years of follow-up. Psychological Assessment 42.5, 931-942.
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