Student Well-Being

Study Suggests Mothers’ Stress Can Affect Daughters Later

By Ross Brenneman — November 13, 2012 2 min read
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“Mothers, be good to your daughters,” sings John Mayer, because as it turns out, when moms are under stress, it may lead to long-term emotional strain for their daughters.

(Happy Thanksgiving!)

According to a new study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teenage girls demonstrated higher levels of anxiety when born into homes with stressed mothers. Those mothers may have been experiencing high-anxiety events during reporting, such as postpartum depression or financial woes. The findings build on earlier work conducted as part of a longitudinal study begun by UMW over two decades ago.

The study contains ramifications for schools, of course. Another study shows that feelings of boredom in school directly relate to stress. Indeed, research indicates that boredom and stress continuously feed into each other. And surveys of Nordic countries found teenage girls more susceptible to academic burnout, as measured by exhaustion and disengagement derived from stress.

The science behind UMW’s newest conclusions hinges on two pieces of evidence. First, teenage girls from higher-stress homes possessed higher levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. And second, fMRIs showed diminished connections between the amygdala (your brain’s lil’ emotional regulators) and the prefrontal cortex (That’s your brain’s executive function area. Fans of “The Walking Dead” will note that these are the areas listed as nonfunctional in zombies, which explains their relative low-maintenance.)

But the brain scans refuted the notion that teenager-reported stress levels corresponded to the reduced brain connections, and instead, the latter actually aligned more closely with the stress levels reported during infancy. Higher cortisol levels from childhood, therefore, may have altered those brain connections responsible for emotional regulation.

In normal speak: Infant girls in stressed-out homes may experience higher levels of anxiety throughout adolescence. This isn’t to say, of course, that mothers are actually responsible—correlation is not causality—but it’s an interesting connection nevertheless.

“This will pave the way to better understanding of how the brain develops, and could give us insight into ways to intervene when children are young,” said Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at UWM, in a press release.

Nature Neuroscience published the results Nov. 11.

Males didn’t show similar patterns, because, you know, typical.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.