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Study Says Treating Your Depression with Therapy Has Unexpected Benefits for Your Kids

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As a life-long anxiety sufferer, I know that caring for my mental health has to be a top priority. If I don’t keep up with the things that temper my anxiety (which for me, means exercise, meditation, and psychotherapy), I suffer the consequences.

In fact, since having kids, there have been times that it has been nearly impossible to keep up with it all. After falling off the therapy wagon for a few years, I recently needed to start up again because my anxiety had spiked, and I knew that if I didn’t take care of it soon, I would once again be in the land of daily panic attacks, agoraphobia, and all the horrible symptoms that come when my anxiety gets out of control.

But what I didn’t realize was how deeply my anxiety was impacting my kids. Within a few weeks of therapy and feeling better, I noticed that I was better able to handle my own kids’ emotions and behavior — and that my kids were just generally acting calmer, less whiny, and more even-tempered.

Pretty amazing, huh?

And apparently, it’s not just me. A new study published in Development and Psychopathology confirms that this as a common phenomenon — that treating a mother’s mental health has a direct and positive effect on her kids.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester Mt. Hope Family Center and the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development, looked at young mothers who were exhibiting signs of major depression. After receiving “interpersonal psychotherapy” (a 12-16 week intensive, highly-focused therapy program), these mother were found to fare better than the control group, who did not receive the therapy, but who merely received therapy referrals.

Not only that, but their children showed signs of improvement across a whole spectrum of developmental criteria. Treating the depression of each other made them more responsive to their children overall. It also made them better at reading their children’s cues, which in turn made the children less fussy, and less likely to act out.

“It’s a cascading effect for the family,” Elizabeth Handley, lead researcher and assistant professor at the Mt. Hope Family Center, told The University of Rochester’s Newscenter.

It’s so easy to believe that the misbehavior of our kids is what’s bringing us down as moms (and believe me, kids sure are pains-in-butt sometimes, and that should not be minimized). But it’s definitely remarkable to think about it this way — that if our kids seem to be interfering with our mental health, treating our mental health might very well trickle right down to our kids, and make our whole family unit run smoother.

According to Handley, one of the biggest shifts mothers experienced in the study was how they started to view their children. When steeped in depression, they viewed their children harshly, thereby parenting them that way by default. But when their depression lifted, so did their perspective on their kids.

“If you can change the moms’ lens in the way that they see their children, then you can set the kids off on a more positive trajectory,” Handley told Newscenter. “Rose-colored lenses are preferable to gray ones, because a positive perception of their children is actually predictive of better outcomes later in life.”

One particular outcome that the researchers focused on was secure attachments, noting that moms with untreated depression are more likely to have children with developmental delays and insecure attachments.

“An insecure attachment relationship is associated with a whole host of negative outcomes,” Handley tells Newscenter, “They know Mom as a secure base from where to explore the world. Without that secure attachment toddlers are more likely to be aggressive, to have conduct problems, and a whole array of negative mental health outcomes.”

Of course, none of this is meant to shame or judge mothers who are dealing with untreated mental health issues. Not all children are impacted in the same way by a mother’s mental state, and the mother-child relationship is a pretty individual thing, if you ask me; one that impacts children in different ways. I don’t think we can minimize how difficult it can be for mothers to find the time and resources to get help.

The good news, though, is that help is out there, and free of charge in some instances. Remember that it’s never too late to treat your mental health — and that whenever and however you do it, your children (and everyone in your life) will reap the benefits.

But most of all, remember this: You are amazing and deserve to feel well.

If you’re a mother dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, visit Postpartum Progress for more info about how and where to get help. Some of these resources are free of charge.

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