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Maternal depression

Maternal Depression

Depression is a prevalent issue among women. Approximately 25% of women in will have a major depressive disorder at least once in their lifetime and 15% of the female population will experience post-partum depression. (Women and Mental Illness, 2003) With these numbers, it is obvious that maternal depression has profound effect on the Canadian family. Mother have the most influence in a child's life, since they generally more involved in raising the children then men are. In most cases, this influence serves to direct the child to healthy development. But when the mother is suffering from depression, what effect does it have on the intellectual and emotional development of her child? The child is definitively affected starting as early as infancy and through adolescence.

Depression: Symptoms and Causes

Depression may be simply defined as a state of sadness. Many may feel depressed for a short time when things do not go their way, but when this feeling persists and interferes with daily activity a doctor may diagnose an individual with clinical depression and order medication. Genetic predisposition, personal problems, and seasonal hormonal changes are some of the many things that may trigger depression. A depressed individual may encounter feelings of despair and sadness, constant fatigue, constant headaches, among other things. If left untreated, depression may lead to suicide. (Mood Disorders, 2003)

Depressed Women as Mothers

Most mothers aspire to provide a nurturing environment for their children. Depressed mothers generally want the best for their children, but their illness prevents them from achieving this goal. Depressed mothers have a much different opinion of themselves as mothers and of their children's behavior. They may see themselves as inadequate and think that they have little control over their child's development and they may perceive many aspects of their child's normal behavior in a negative light. (Gurian, 2003)

Many report feeling overwhelmed at the responsibilities of raising a child. Under so much stress, depressed mothers will face the normal frustrations of raising children much differently than normal mothers would. In many cases, the mother may criticize the child to the point of insulting him. Verbal abuse has been linked to lack of self esteem in children, especially when done at a young age. Some depressed mother will go even further and react violently to her child's petty trespasses. (Sheffield, 2000)


Many would argue that infancy is the most important stage of child development. Infants require the correct balance of affection, stimulation, and time alone to rest. Many depressed mothers are not capable of maintaining this balance and thus may become intrusive or withdrawn. Intrusive mothers may be either overprotective, hostile, or both. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003) Children of depressed mothers have been found to make more hospital visits for minor issues than those of non-depressed mothers. This may lead to unnecessary absence from school and unnecessary medication of a child. (Chamberlin, 2003) An over stimulating mother will disrupt the infants activity and deprive him of sleep. In response, the infant may turn away from the mother to limit her intrusiveness. The infant may also develop and angry, protective style of coping. Withdrawn mothers tend to neglect and under stimulate the infant. They are disengaged and unresponsive to their child's needs. Their neglect has a very negative effect on the infant's activity. Infants may develop passivity and withdrawal, and may adopt self-regulatory behaviors, such a sucking on their thumb. Cognitive development is also hindered by over/under stimulation. Infants of depressed mothers have been found to have more attention problems. Poorer performance in learning and processing information is also a common correlation. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003)


The effects of maternal depression become more evident as the become toddlers. Depressed mothers are less attentive to their child's needs. They may be less likely to set and follow limits on the child's behavior. (Gurian, 2003) Children become very active and energetic as toddlers and this puts more stress on mothers. Some depressed mothers may react with hostility and even violence to their toddler's actions. (Sheffield, 2000) Many toddlers of depressed mothers will react by internalizing problems, which is characterized by depressive behavior. Some toddlers will react by externalizing problems, which is characterized by aggressive and violent behavior. The most recognizable cognitive effect on toddlers is poor linguistic development. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003)

School-age Children

The violent behavior and neglect towards infants and toddlers continues through the children's school-age and adolescence. Children of school age continue to react to this by internalizing (depression) or externalizing (violence) their problems. Many also display a lack of appropriate autonomy for their age. It is at this age where children of depressed mothers begin to be classified as having a higher risk of depression or conduct disorders. (Gurian, 2003) Studies have shown that an onset of depression before the age of 30 in mothers greatly increases the chance of children developing depression early in childhood. (Sheffield, 2000) Effects to the child's academic performance include lower IQ scores and difficulty in mathematical reasoning. There is also an association between maternal depression and ADHD in children. Attention problems are quite common in children of depressed mothers. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003)


Adolescence is a vulnerable period for depression and other mental disorders. Adolescents who have had depressed mothers through their childhood are at a much greater risk developing phobias, panic disorders, and clinical depression. The verbal a physical abuse over the course of their childhood may lead to low self-esteem in adolescence. Problems with maintaining healthy peer relationships are prevalent among adolescents with depressed mothers. (Sheffield, 2000) There is a higher rate of drug/alcohol dependency as well a higher rate of suicide attempts among these adolescents. The academic problems experienced during school-age persist or become worse as the child becomes an adolescent. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003)

Role of Father

When a family is confronted with maternal depression, the role of the father becomes more important to the child's development. The child will develop lower intellectual and emotional competence if the father also suffers from depression. However, if the father is not depressed, he could take on the maternal role that the mother cannot fulfill. This could potentially allow for a more healthy development of the child. The father could in fact act as a "buffer" and lessen the effect of the mother's depression. A stronger father-child bond will be developed as a result of maternal depression. (Clause & Bonnin, 2003)


Maternal depression has many negative effects on the emotional and intellectual development of children. Children become more prone to depression, aggressiveness, lack of self esteem, and addictions, among other things. They also tend to have poorer performance cognitively and academically. However, with proper medication, depression is treatable. Children whose mothers suffer from depression, but are on medication, have been shown to have a more healthy development. (LaRoque, 2004)


Canadian Mental Health Association (Feb. 3, 2003). Women and Mental Illness. Retrieved November 2, 2005 from

Canadian Mental Health Association (Feb. 3, 2003). Mood Disorders. Retrieved November 2, 2005 from

Chamberlin, J. (June 2003). Mothers' mental stress linked to children's medical visits. Monitor on Psychology, 34, 13.

Clause, A. & Bonnin, B. (2003). Maternal Depression and Child Development. Paediatr Child Health, 9, 575-583

Gurian, A. (Jan. 2003). How Maternal Depression Affects Children. Child Study Center, 7, 1-5.

LaRoque, C. (Oct. 2004). Maternal depression can seriously affect a child's development. Retrieved November 2, 2005 from

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