Kids' stress tied to parent depression

Last Updated 18 March 2011, 16:28 IST

 And the level of stress is more among kids who have a depressed mother with a hostile style of parenting, found the study by researchers at the University of Maryland in the US. Lea Dougherty, a psychologist who led the study, said the findings are “quite hopeful” from parents’ perspective.

“If we focus on the parenting, we could really intervene early and help parents with chronic depression when they have kids,” Dougherty was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

For their study, which was aimed at finding out how a child’s early temperament can lead to depression and whether parenting style has anything to do with it, the researchers recruited 160 three- to four-year-olds and their parents.

Half of the children were boys, and most were white and middle class. First, the researchers evaluated the mothers and fathers for a history of depression. Next, they scheduled two lab visits for the parents and children. During one, the parent played with the child while the researchers observed the interactions for signs of criticism, frustration and anger on the part of the parent.

In 96 per cent of cases, the mother was the one who brought the child to the lab, so the researchers collected little data on father-child interactions.

During the other lab visit, the child played a variety of fun games with an experimenter, interspersed with a few activities designed to elicit stress and frustration.

In one activity, the experimenter left the room and an adult male stranger came in to talk to the child. In another, the experimenter gave the child a transparent locked box with a toy in it, along with a key that didn’t fit the lock.

The final stress-inducing activity involved promising the child a gift but instead giving him or her an empty box.

After each stressful experience, the child’s feelings were soothed, Dougherty said.

“After each one of these, you come back in, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my god, I forgot the present! Here it is,’” she said. “Everything’s kind of remedied.”

During the experiment, the researchers used cheek swabs to measure the children’s levels of stress hormone cortisol. More cortisol indicates a higher level of stress.

Just having a depressed parent didn’t make kids more prone to cortisol spikes, but having a depressed mother with a hostile parenting style did.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was just a one-time snapshot of stress response, so the researchers said more studies are needed to establish the correlation between hostile parenting and stress among kids.

Nonetheless, the findings are important as early stress is a risk factor for later depression, they added.

(Published 18 March 2011, 16:28 IST)

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