New research shows that children whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy are more likely to be bullied later in life. A study of nearly 9,000 children discovered that stress and anxiety could be passed from the mother to her unborn baby. Children affected by their mother’s stress are more likely to cry, run away, or feel anxious at school, research shows.
These emotions allegedly make them easier prey for bullies.
Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick notes, “When we are exposed to stress, large quantities of neurohormones are released into the blood stream and in a pregnant woman this can change the developing fetus’ own stress response system.”
The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and is based on 8,829 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a long-term health research project.
Wolke notes that this is “the first study to investigate stress in pregnancy and a child’s vulnerability to being bullied.” He adds, “Changes in the stress response system can affect behavior and how children react emotionally to stress such as being picked on by a bully.”
Along with other researchers, Wolke identified the main prenatal stress factors: severe family problems. These can include financial difficulties, alcohol and drug abuse, and maternal health issues.
Wolke notes that anxiety during pregnancy leads to “a vicious cycle,: stating that “a child with an altered stress response system is more likely to be bullied, which affects their stress response even further and increases the likelihood of them developing mental health problems in later life.”
More than 14,000 mothers enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children during pregnancy in 1991 and 1992, and the health and development of their children has been followed in great detail ever since.
The study is supported by another German study which took place last year, in which researchers found that a mother’s stress can spread to her baby in the womb and may cause a lasting effect. The cycle of stress is likely to continue, since studies show that children who are bullied are less likely to be able to handle stress. This means that when these children grow up, they are more likely to have anxiety and stress during pregnancy, continuing the cycle.