Children of Depressed Parents Experience More Stress

Stress response elevated if mother has history of depression and negative parenting behaviors

FRIDAY, April 29 (HealthDay News) -- Young children respond to stressful situations with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when their parents have a history of depression and exhibit negative behavior toward them, according to a study published online April 1 in Psychological Science.

Lea R. Dougherty, Ph.D. of the University of Maryland in College Park, and colleagues investigated whether nondepressed, preschool-aged children of parents with a history of depression had higher levels of cortisol when exposed to a psychosocial stressor, and whether parenting behavior moderated this effect. Salivary samples were obtained from 160 children aged 3 to 4 years, upon exposure to stress-inducing laboratory tasks. Parents were interviewed and observed during a parent-child interaction task.

The researchers found that only children whose parents had a history of depression and demonstrated hostility toward their child had elevated and increasing cortisol levels when stressed in the lab. Specifically, the increased stress response occurred only among children who were exposed to maternal depression during the first few years of life. The association between parental depression and cortisol reactivity was moderated by parent hostility; children did not have increased cortisol levels if their parents expressed low levels of hostility, even if they had a history of depression.

"These results suggest the potential importance of parenting interventions for parents with depressive disorders, particularly during periods of significant neurodevelopmental plasticity," the authors write.

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