Interviews of 120 British adolescents and their parents (80% of a random sample of antenatal patients drawn from a representative urban population and followed longitudinally) revealed that 40 (33%) had been arrested and/or had a diagnosis of conduct disorder by 16 years of age; of those, 18 (45%) had committed violent acts. Depression in pregnancy significantly predicted violence in adolescence, even after controlling for the family environment, the child's later exposure to maternal depression, the mother's smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and parents' antisocial behavior. Mothers with a history of conduct problems were at elevated risk to become depressed in pregnancy, and the offspring of depressed women had a greater chance of becoming violent by age 16, researchers said.
Evidence shows that the children of mothers who are depressed in pregnancy may also be exposed to a cumulative sequence of risk factors, including the pregnant woman's anxiety symptoms, her use of substances during pregnancy, and her subsequent episodes of depressive illness. These cumulative risks associated with antenatal depression would be further exacerbated by her antisocial tendencies, the father's antisocial behavior, and general environmental adversity throughout the child's lifetime, Dale F. Hay, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Park Place, Cardiff, Wales and others wrote in Child Development.
"Therefore, the aim of our study was to describe such accumulation of risks for antisocial behavior from the mother's pregnancy to 16 years of age in a population of British children who reside in relatively disadvantaged urban communities and are therefore already at general environmental risk for antisocial behavior, psychopathology, and poor educational and occupational outcomes. The South London Child Development Study (SLCDS) is an ongoing longitudinal study of families in two areas of South London.... in the present study, we examine the effects of depression in pregnancy on violent and nonviolent antisocial behavior in adolescence while controlling for general environmental adversity, cumulative exposure to maternal mental illness, substance use in pregnancy, and parents' antisocial behavior.
Children who showed serious levels of violence in adolescence were especially likely to have had a non-optimal family environment. They were more likely than nonviolent children, even those with other antisocial symptoms, to have been exposed to recurring episodes of maternal illness and to have mothers with a history of conduct problems.
The fact that antisocial adolescents who were not violent were not significantly different from non-antisocial adolescents in their exposure to most risk factors suggests that there may be a direct link between a child's early adverse experiences and his or her propensity for violence, as opposed to a disposition to show other forms of covert antisocial behavior.
This in turn suggests that if there are fetal programming effects linked to the mother's depression in pregnancy, and leading to neurobiological impairment, they are more likely to influence overt aggression than other forms of rule breaking in childhood and adolescence.
The challenges faced by the children of mothers with a history of conduct problems and lifelong depressive illness have been highlighted by the researchers, and they are calling for appropriate intervention.