Depressive Symptoms in Moms Linked to Unhealthy Behaviors in Teens

Maternal depressive symptoms were associated with an increase in unhealthy adolescent behaviors, a 15-year longitudinal study showed.

While unhealthy behaviors were found to be common among adolescents in general, with two out of three exhibiting at least one, higher levels of maternal depressive symptoms during a child’s middle childhood and adolescence were associated with unhealthier behaviors by age 16–17 of legal age, reported Laura Bechtiger, MSc, from the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development in Zurich, and colleagues.

Of 213 participants in the study, two-thirds reported at least one unhealthy behavior and one-fifth three or more unhealthy behaviors, they found paediatrics.

One in four adolescents reported poor sleep and an unhealthy diet, two in five reported physical inactivity, and one in seven reported being sedentary and smoking at some point.

No gender differences were found in the total number of unhealthy behaviors, although boys were more likely to report poor nutrition while girls were more likely to report physical inactivity and sedentary behaviors.

“Remarkably, all associations are small, underscoring that maternal depressive symptoms are not necessarily associated with unhealthy behaviors in adolescents,” Bechtiger and his team wrote. “This suggests complex developmental processes for unhealthy behaviors in adolescents that need to be explored in future research.”

“It will be relevant to include repeated measurements of unhealthy behaviors as early as childhood in this future research,” said Bechtiger MedPage today. “This would allow us to better understand whether depressive symptoms in mothers and children actually precede unhealthy behaviors in children, or whether the associations between them are more dynamic.”

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Noting that adolescence is a time when children have new opportunities for unhealthy behaviors, the authors noted that such behaviors as poor diet and smoking may be risk factors for cardiovascular disease and cancer later in life.

“Our results suggest that paying attention to the mental health of children and parents is important in pediatric practice,” said Bechtiger. “Although the promotion of mental health, including that of parents, does not appear to be directly linked to pediatric practice, it could prevent negative long-term health consequences across the board.”

Previous research has shown that up to one in five US children are at risk of maternal clinical depression.

“One of the most important depressive symptoms is a lack of energy and motivation. Such anhedonia represents a significant barrier to maternal engagement in health-promoting activities. For example, depressed mothers may lack the energy to be active with their child(ren) and may model unhealthy habits. such as poorly adjusted sleep patterns or unhealthy diet,” the authors noted.

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“Promoting maternal well-being and mental health is not only vital for the mothers themselves, but can help address one of the most pressing public health issues by promoting healthy behaviors in children,” wrote Bechtiger and sein Team.

“Screening parent and child mental health in primary care settings, such as during visits to healthy children, could be a way to identify affected families early and refer them to relevant resources and services, as well as an opportunity to start a conversation about unhealthy health to initiate behaviors in adults and children,” they added.

This 15-year prospective longitudinal community study was conducted using data from the RIGHT Track Health Project in North Carolina. Data were collected for children aged 2 to 17 years.

Families were recruited through daycares, the county health department, and the local women, infants, and children program. The final sample included 213 children with a mean age of 16.62 years at the time of assessment; 42% were boys, 65% were white, 29% were black, and the mean Hollingshead Index score was 39.88.

Unhealthy behaviors were assessed at ages 16–17 by a cumulative index of unhealthy behaviors among adolescents based on self-reported presence of poor sleep, poor diet, physical inactivity, lack of exercise, and smoking. The timing of exposure to maternal depressive symptoms was divided into early childhood (2-5 years old), middle childhood (7-10 years old), and adolescence (15 years old).

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The authors found that the incidence of maternal depressive symptoms was low during early childhood (9.1%), middle childhood (5.7%), and adolescence (13.4%).

The overall indirect effect of maternal depressive symptoms to children’s depressive symptoms to unhealthy behaviors in adolescents was significant (B = 0.08, 95% CI 0.01-0.18). The indirect effect observed through the continuity of maternal depressive symptoms was also significant (B=0.19, 95% CI 0.01-0.39).

Bechtiger and his team found that unhealthy behavior was only measured during adolescence, limiting the ability to determine the direction of association. In addition, the sample was small and unhealthy behaviors were self-reported. In addition, the study design was correlative in nature and inconclusive as to causality. Psychiatric diagnoses and the use of services by mothers were also not measured.

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    James Lopilato is a regular contributor at Medpage Today. It covers a variety of topics studied in current medical science research.


This study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The study authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

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