Maternal depression may reduce empathy in kids, says study

New York: Mothers' early and chronic depression may increase the risk of children developing social-emotional problems as well as impact their brain's empathic response to others' distress, a study has found.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The findings showed that in children of depressed mothers, the neural reaction to pain stops earlier than in controls, in an area related to socio-cognitive processing.

As a result, these children seem to reduce mentalising-related processing of others' pain, perhaps because of difficulty in regulating the high arousal associated with observing distress in others, said lead author Ruth Feldman, Professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

However, when mother-child interactions were more synchronous, that is, mother and child were better attuned to one another and when mothers were less intrusive, these children showed higher mentalising-related processing in this crucial brain area.

"It is encouraging to see the role of mother-child interactions. Depressed mothers are repeatedly found to show less synchronous and more intrusive interactions with their children and so it might explain some of the differences found among children of depressed mothers and controls," Feldman added.

Apart from reduced empathy to others, children exposed to maternal depression may also have increased social withdrawal and poor emotion regulation, the researchers said.

For the study, the team followed mother-child pairs — 27 children of mothers with depression and 45 controls — from birth to age 11.

Since 15-18 percent of women in industrial societies and up to 30 percent in developing countries suffer from maternal depression, it is of clinical and public health concern to understand the effects of maternal depression on children's development, the researchers noted.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).