Kids with Depressed Moms Have Survival Skills


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?


Related Stories:

Depressed Women Have a Higher Risk of Stroke

Stress in Expecting Mothers Is Passed On To Babies

More Evidence That Abortions Don’t Cause Depression

Photo credit: PinkStock Photos!


Carole R.
Carole R6 years ago

It's amazing how adaptable kids are. They do learn to survive and cope with the life they have been given.

Don Go
Don Go6 years ago

I agree with Hilary E., you make or break your own life.
Definitely mothers will influence a child, make them learn faster or slower, but I think mentally-unstable or not, the child could develop survival instincts the same as any other.
Some mothers just have it harder to do.

Nancy V.

I KNOW that 'my rearing/bringing up' affected my mothering!!! Boy, the mistakes I made. I can see that affect to this day...............but hopefully by I had the second child I had learned and improved............too late now to change things but surely wish some things had been different!! Guess it's that way with many people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Hilary E.
Hilary E6 years ago

This is a tricky issue. I grew up with a schizo-effective bipolar mother who loved me very much and did a better job raising me than most Americans in my opinion. That said, I was definitely effected by her illness. I learned to walk on eggshells around her from a very young age and have always been a very calm, grounded, soft spoken and rational person. I was never neglected by my mother. I always had food and clothing and often went with a family member when she got very manic and had to be hospitalized.She always had issues with not being in good enough shape or thin enough so that sort of reflected onto me as a teen, thankfully I had enough presence of character not to really let it bother me too much but looking back I would have enjoyed my teen years more if I knew how attractive I really was as a curvy girl. It's almost her karma that none of her 3 children turned out thin. We have had rough patches but have a good relationship and I understand the human condition much more completely by growing up with her. I also feel like it was almost fate to be raised that way because now i am in a great relationship with an Iraq veteran who would probably have a hard time being in a relationship with someone who couldn't understand how to deal with his PTSD. At the end of the day your life is what you make it, you either let your challenges destroy you or make you stronger.

Christine S.

Maybe there should be a group for kids with depressed parents like there is ala-teen for kids with alcoholism in their family. That way, you are not blaming anybody, but helping the kid do more than just survive- give them emotional support etc, that they may not be able to get at home.

Douglas S.
Douglas S6 years ago

Good article. The survival instinct in kids is actually quite common. For example, it is not uncommon to see siblings that look out for one another or their parents for that matter if need be. Unfortunately the child in these situations often suffers on a multitude of levels.

Lin Moy
Lin M6 years ago

I had lots of stress and still do. Some times it never goes away.

Sandy Erickson
Sandy Erickson6 years ago

I have helped kids by being open and friendly but not invasive. I try to be encouraging to all that I meet. It just makes for a better world.

Wanda Walker
Wanda Walker6 years ago

I would help a child if i knew that child was in danger then i would not care who got mad.