Antisocial parenting affects children

Today is my final article in the series on the effects of early life environment on the mental health and development of children.

Obviously, our home environment during childhood plays a vital role in our future lives and affects the adults we will become. In my last column I dealt specifically with the effects of growing up in a household where one or more parent is living with an untreated mental illness, specifically depression.

Today we will look at another recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which examines the impact of living with a parent who is not only depressed, but also experiences antisocial personality traits.

This study looks specifically at mothers experiencing depression with our without antisocial behaviour. Behaviours consistent with an antisocial personality disorder include repeated deceitfulness; unlawful behaviour; recklessness; consistently irresponsible behaviour; lack of remorse; or repeated physical fights or assaults.

In this recent study, children with depressed mothers were assessed and comparisons made between those whose mothers did or did not have antisocial behaviours.

Children in this study were assessed at ages five and seven. Results found that children with mothers who exhibited depression and antisocial behaviour had significantly more problems themselves both with antisocial behaviour and conduct disorders. Further, these children were also at a significantly increased risk of experiencing abuse, which of course puts them at even higher risk for developing a variety of psychiatric conditions later in life.

Mothers with both depression and antisocial behaviours reported higher stress levels and showed less warmth and more negativity toward their children.

Unfortunately, women with these co-existing conditions are more likely to bear children with highly antisocial men who also can contribute substantially to a risk for antisocial behaviour in children.

As with other mental health conditions, there is a genetic predisposition to depression and antisocial personality traits, however the development of a disorder should not be considered a sure thing. There are opportunities for prevention.

More research into the area of long term effects of childhood environment is needed.

Understanding the role that environment plays in an individual's mental development can help us find and apply appropriate intervention techniques. If we can assist parents to provide positive care environments for their children, we can very likely improve mental health functioning in children at risk. In many cases, this may be enough to prevent the development of disorder in these children.

For children living with depressed and antisocial parents it is likely that positive interactions in settings outside of the home at places such as school, clubs or team sports would be particularly beneficial. It is in society's best interest in the long term to maximize these opportunities for children particularly those living in poverty who are at greatest risk.

When prevention is not possible, simply being aware of a child's increased risk can help parents and health care providers to take appropriate steps early to help the child deal with his or her condition and avoid the many negative impacts of untreated, unmanaged psychiatric illness.


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