Baby blues: Is your toddler badly behaved?

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 14, 2015 17:53 IST

Is your toddler temperamental and badly behaved? The problem could be you.

Parental depression, however mild, during the first years of parenting raises a toddler's chances of developing troubling behaviours such as hitting, lying, anxiety and depression during a critical time of development, reported US researchers in the journal Couple and Family Psychology ( this week.

The study shows new dads also get depressed after childbirth, with a man's risk of depression after the birth of a child being greater than at any other time in his life. Previous studies have found that children's behaviour during early, formative years gets affected if mums have postpartum depression. This study found that dad's moods also influence his child's behaviour during toddler years. Interestingly, fights between parents were not found to alter children's mood and behaviour as much as parental depression.

Down and out
Depression changes how we express emotions and interact with others. Depressed parents make less eye contact with their child and don't smile as much as other parents. The more disengaged the parents are in their child's formative years, the more trouble will the child have in forming close attachments and developing social skills.

Postpartum psychiatric disorders can take the form of blues, depression and psychosis. Postpartum blues are fairly common in new parents, who may feel confused, moody, anxious, weepy and depressed in the first week following birth. In most cases, the blues last for a couple of hours to a few days and have little negative effect. At the other end of the mood spectrum is the rarer postpartum psychosis, where delusions, hallucinations and impaired functioning affect new parents, usually, mums, within four weeks of childbirth.

Woman suffering from postpartum depression (Photo: Shutterstock)

One in ten women develop postpartum depression that includes frequent mood-swings, fatigue, anorexia, sleep disturbances, anxiety, excessive guilt and suicidal thoughts that may last for a month or more. A history of psychiatric disorders, a bad marriage or relationship, infants with special needs, financial constraints and lack of family support raises risk; with women with postpartum depression have a 50% to 62% risk of depression in the future.

Baby blues
Postpartum depression can make people either intrusive or withdrawn. Intrusive parents are hostile and disruptive, making the child turn away to limit the intrusion or act out by hitting back. Withdrawn mothers are disengaged, unresponsive and don't engage, making the child passively compliant, withdrawn or fall back on self-regulatory behaviours, such looking away or sucking on thumb.

Depressed moms -- there are no studies for dads -- are also less attentiveness and responsiveness to their children's needs, which makes them poor models for mood regulation and problem solving. Children of depressed moms are anxious, emotionally vulnerable, aggressive and destructive. They are also more hostile to forming attachments and bonds, and less likely to engage in creative play.

Lower interactive and contingent stimulation affects learning and the child's ability to process information, which may lead to lower IQ scores, attentional problems, difficulties in mathematical reasoning and special educational needs. As a result, children develop impaired adaptive functioning, including internalising (sadness, anxiety, jitteriness) and externalising (acting out, hitting, lying) problems.

Problems encountered in school-age children, mainly ADHD and learning disabilities, persist into adolescence and raises risk of depression and other psychopathies (anxiety, conduct disorders and substance abuse).

On the other hand, children with an easy-going temperament may develop resilience and good social cognitive skills, especially if the other parent is supportive and acts like a buffer.

Treating troubles
Parental should be treated at once, even in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Since all antidepressants cross the placental barrier and are excreted in breast milk; tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline and fluoxetine are recommended as they carry low risk for the baby. No neurological or developmental abnormalities have yet been found in children exposed to SSRIs or tricyclic antidepressants through breast milk.

Social and psychoeducational support for parents that focuses on improving mood, raising sensitivity to the baby's cues and lowering negative perceptions about parenting can help form bonds and make the baby grow up feeling loved and secure.

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