A common teenage wail is ďMy mother drives me crazy.† She is ruining my life.Ē† We all bemusedly toss this off a typical teenage angst and most of the time we are right to do so.† However, we are discovering that sometimes the teenager is right.† There are, in fact, significant effects on children when mothers have mental health problems.
Dr. Sonja Lupien, who leads studies on social effects on mental health, looked at ten year olds who, over the course of their lifetimes, have lived with or been close to mothers who have been diagnosed with clinical depression.† She discovered an enlarged amygdala in these children.
The amygdala is the part of the brain very often associated with emotions and emotional responses.† It is also called the primitive or survivalist portion of the brain. The amygdala has been shown to be involved in assigning emotional significance to information and events, and contributes to the way we respond to perceived risks.
These kids often have to feed and dress themselves when mom is going through an episode.† They know that they have to hide momís condition or they will get taken away from mom, and we know that kids who are neglected or abused are the most loyal to the parent.† So they do the best they can.
This finding has been seen before, in adopted children, refugees and in orphanages.† One of the possible explanations here is lack of personal attention.† Adoptees, orphans and children with depressed mothers are often left to their own devices to figure out their own way in the world.† They often overreact, display fear-based behavior or aggression.† In short, these children display survival mechanisms.
We also find it in children raised with extreme poverty or violence, so the lack of personal attention may not be the problem, but rather survival stress.† Just trying to make it through the day on the playground is stressful enough for most kids.
It could be that the larger the amgydala, the better the chance of survival.†† However, the researchers note that the adoption studies have also shown that those children adopted earlier in life into more affluent families did not have enlarged amygdalas. This suggests that the brain responds to the environment during early development, and confirms the importance of early intervention to help children facing adversity.
Early intervention means by the educators, professionals and surrounding parents in the community.
It is easy, (and Freudian) to blame the mother.† But what if she needs help?† What if she does not want her kid to be the one just surviving?† Maybe she wants her kid to trust others and play on the teeter -totter. I bet you anything she wants her kids to have play dates with friends that donít think he is dirty or have weird food for lunch because mayonnaise and ketchup were the only things to put on the bread when mommy was sleeping all day, and there were no groceries.
I’ll bet you anything she just wants her kid to have a friend.
Too many times I have seen this weird kid at school where I have dropped off my nanny kids, or later, in the classroom when I was teaching.† Some of them fly under the radar.† And then you meet the mom.† And you know.† Things start adding up.
It is tricky.† Secrets around mental illness are hard.† Social cues and social systems need to be navigated.† Legal systems, too, sometimes.† Kids, yours and the weird kid, donít always play along, and of course, there is the gossip.† I think Dr. Lupien and her group have it right.† It is survival, and yet we are talking about a kid here.† Even if, for whatever reason, we cannot help the mom, it seems that we should be able to find a way to help the kid.† He is just trying to survive.
What do you think?† Are there ways to help?† What are they?
Photo credit: PinkStock Photos!