Mothers' Difficult Childhoods Impact Their Children’s Mental Health
• Research Highlight
An estimated 40% to 50% of people will experience adversity during childhood, which can increase the risk for physical and emotional challenges when they grow up. Studies show that parents who faced difficult situations in their childhood may pass on some of those risks to their children. However, the way this intergenerational transmission of risk occurs is not well understood.
In a recent study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Jessica Uy, Ph.D., of the University of California Los Angeles, and colleagues sought to understand how trauma gets passed from one generation to the next. They discovered that when mothers experience adversity in their childhood, it can negatively impact their mental health during and after pregnancy, which in turn, can affect their children's mental health.
The researchers followed 541 mother-child pairs who participated in the Growing Up Singapore Toward Health Outcomes (GUSTO) study. The researchers examined the impact of childhood adversity on mothers’ mental health during pregnancy and after the birth of their children and on their children's resulting brain development and mental health.
Mothers in the study reported their levels of anxiety and depression at 26 weeks of pregnancy and at 3 months, 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, 4.5 years, and 6 years after the birth of their child. When their children were 4.5 years of age, mothers reported their recollections of childhood abuse or neglect.
The researchers asked the mothers and their children to fill out surveys when the children were between 7 and 8 years old to find out if the children were feeling anxious, depressed, or withdrawn. Additionally, the researchers collected functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from a subset of 89 children in the study when they were 6 years old.
The researchers found that maternal experiences of childhood neglect were associated with worse mental health (reflecting higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms) both during pregnancy and after birth. Worse maternal mental health, in turn, was linked to their children having more feelings of anxiety and depression and being more socially withdrawn when they were 7.5 years old. Maternal experiences of childhood neglect were also associated with their children reporting more anxiety-related performance fears, physical symptoms, and restlessness.
Maternal experiences of childhood abuse were associated with worse mental health among mothers after birth, which in turn was linked to their children feeling more anxious, depressed, and withdrawn at 7.5 years of age.
The researchers also found a link between maternal mental health and their children’s brain activity. Children of mothers who experienced worse mental health after birth showed weaker connectivity between two parts of the brain (the amygdala and prefrontal cortex)—a connection critical for the regulation and processing of emotion.
The researchers note several limitations of their study. The mothers who participated were from the general population, which meant most had lower levels of trauma, anxiety, and depression than would be found in a clinical population. In addition, not all children had fMRI data, and having fMRI data from a larger sample of children would lend greater weight to the findings.
The results of this study indicate that when a mother experiences difficult times during her own childhood, it can affect her mental health when she is an adult, during critical life stages such as during pregnancy and after giving birth. This, in turn, can increase the risk of mental health challenges in her children. The authors suggest one way to break the transmission of risk may be to focus on providing intervention and support to women during these critical time periods.
Uy, J. P., Tan, A. P., Broeckman, B. B. F. P., Gluckman, P. D., Chong, Y. S., Chen, H., Fortier, M. V., Meaney, M. J., & Callaghan, B. L. (2023). Effects of maternal childhood trauma on child emotional health: Maternal mental health and frontoamygdala pathways. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 64(3), 426–436. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13721