If a Teenage Girl is Unhappy, It’s Mom’s Fault – So Says New Study

Just what mothers need: one more thing to feel guilty about.A new study found that girls whose mothers were stressed during their daughters’ infancy grew up to experience more anxiety than others.

The preliminary findings of the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, are that “an early stressful environment during a baby girl’s first year was associated with altered brain behavior and signs of anxiety in her late teens.”

Scientists already had an inkling about the connection between the conditions of infancy and later behavior from studies of animals. Those experiments “pointed out how tough times in childhood influence the brain and the animals’ behavior later in life.”

One notorious example is Harry Harlow’s infamous experiments separating infant monkeys from their mothers. He isolated each baby with monkey mannequins.

The infants grew into deeply maladjusted adults. “Some sat clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth: a stereotypical behavior pattern for excessive and misdirected aggression.” The females who gave birth “were either negligent or abusive,” sometimes even killing their offspring.

One drawback of experimenting on animals like monkeys, besides the horrifying treatment of those infants, is that they are raised by mothers alone. Experiments like these help feed the popular stereotype that anything that is wrong with a child is the mother’s fault. This new study of humans, sadly, is in the same vein — as though fathers and other caregivers don’t have a role in forming an infant’s environment and experiences.

And what do you know — this lopsided study yielded strangely lopsided results: boys did not show any effect from stress during their first year of life, in contrast to girls.

The study went like this: “three times during the first year of their babies’ lives, the mothers reported whether they were experiencing stressful situations such as depression, marital conflict, money woes or parenting stress.” Researchers “assumed” that women experiencing stress created stress for their babies.

Scientists next checked in when the children were five and a half. They found that “daughters whose moms reported higher levels of stress had more of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood.” Boys’ cortisol levels were normal.

Fourteen years after that the women who had high cortisol as children had abnormal brain scans. “The behavior of two brain regions involved in regulating emotions the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala were out of sync.” As a result, they had trouble “shutting down negative emotions” and were more likely “to have problems with anxiety.”

The study doesn’t prove that mothers’ behavior caused their daughters’ anxiety. It only demonstrates a correlation between the mothers’ own self-reported anxiety levels and those of their daughters. It seems to me that mothers whose neurology made them more prone to anxiety would report more of it, and might pass on the genes for it. Or the study could be fatally flawed, or an aberration.

Or perhaps mothers really are magic and have complete power over their children’s lives, even after they are grown. Now that is something to feel anxious about.


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Stella Gamboni
Stella Gamboni5 years ago

Well, isn't it?

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

Some people are just unhappy people. It's no one's fault!

Nancy Black
Nancy Black5 years ago

Good to know that I and other mothers had so much power that we could control whether or not or teenager daughter was happy or unhappy. Silly me, I always thought we were in charge of our own happiness.

Liliana G.
Liliana G5 years ago

Ivy t: Thanks for the star!

Liliana G.
Liliana G5 years ago

TJW: I can see your concerns BUT parents have rights and just because the child is stressed doesn't immediarely follow they are trapped with "bad" parents. The problem is that psychological abuse as well as stressful life conditions do not leave an obvious mark such as physical abuse or rape. If REPEATED high levesl of cortisol were accepted as a symptom of psychological abuse or stressful life situations which merit follow up, parents would be encouraged to look into it and accept services, allowing such services exist and are available to them. These blood samples could be part of a protocol for young children and just taking these samples does not make this intervention or the children into lab rats.

Tahni W5 years ago

The last line in this article is really invalidating to people who had mothers who were mentally ill or severely abusive or both.
Yes, mothers and fathers are ALL a tiny child knows of love and safety and security, therefore they ARE 'magic' to the mind of a child. Children are magical thinkers, and rely completely on parents for their very survival.
Of course stress and anxiety and the inability to cope with those emotions---for whatever reason (domestic violence, postpartum depression, lack of support, drug abuse, an alcoholic or drug addicted spouse or mental illness) are precursors to an infant not getting the care it needs or deserves.
These things lead to child abuse also.
Abuse and neglect change the chemistry of a child's brain.
Of course it damages the brain of a child to be neglected or abused.
But, to say it is the mothers fault is far too simplistic. Maybe it's the fathers fault or societies fault for not taking the child out of harms way when the mother is unable to mother her children.
Frankly, I think the scientists in this study failed the children by leaving them unchecked in an unhealthy situation with unhealthy parents. They are a party to the damage just so that they can use innocent children as lab rats.

Karen Howard
Karen H5 years ago

Yep, all mom's fault. Of course, the fact that dad took off when he found out she was pregnant might have stressed her out.

Tamara Mendelson
Tamara Mendelson5 years ago

i believe this is true unlike some people. but im not saying that it isnt entirely the moms fault, its still mostly the teen

Beth M.
Past Member 5 years ago


Ivy Taylor
Yvonne Taylor5 years ago

Ian B. I just read your comment and that is exactly what I was saying too. Green star sent to you.