The children of parents with personality disorder symptoms are at increased risk for anxiety and depression

New research provides evidence that parents’ personality disorders symptoms predict symptoms of psychiatric disorders in their offspring during childhood. The findings have been published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

“We know quite a lot about how parental depression and anxiety affects offspring, but similar evidence is rather limited in the case of parental personality disorders, despite these being pervasive conditions — characterized by persistent dysfunctional interpersonal patterns, unstable emotional regulation, poor impulse control, affective lability, and deviant cognitive-affective modulation — that are likely to undermine child well-being,” said study author Silje Steinsbekk, a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The study of 594 Norwegian children and their parents found that parental personality disorder symptoms were associated with an increased risk of emotional disorders in their offspring. A parent’s personality disorder symptoms when their children were 4 and 6 years old predicted their children’s symptoms of anxiety and depression two years later.

“Simply stated, our study reveals that if parents display symptoms of personality disorders, their children are at increased risk for developing symptom of anxiety or depression,” Steinsbekk told PsyPost.

“Parental symptoms of Clusters A and C (particularly schizotypal personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) increase future symptoms of anxiety in children, whereas elevated levels of Cluster B (particularly borderline personality disorder) symptoms in parents seem to increase symptoms of depression in offspring.”

Importantly, the study examined symptoms of personality disorders in parents. But that does not necessarily mean the parents meet all the diagnostic criteria and could be diagnosed with a particular disorder. “Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that even though the mean count of symptoms or diagnostic criteria were low in this sample, they still seemed to affect the children,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“Our study does not reveal why parental personality disorder symptoms increase the risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression in their offspring. Future studies should aim to capture the potential mechanisms explaining the present findings, including how parenting may increase or reduce this risk,” Steinsbekk added.

“Although replications and clinical studies are needed, our findings suggest that it is important to address offspring mental health when parents are in treatment for personality disorders or display personality disorder symptoms.”

The study, “Parents’ Personality-Disorder Symptoms Predict Children’s Symptoms of Anxiety and Depressive Disorders – a Prospective Cohort Study“, was authored by Silje Steinsbekk, Turid Suzanne Berg-Nielsen, Jay Belsky, Elisabeth Berg Helland, Marte Hågenrud, Andrea Raballo, and Lars Wichstrøm.