Fourth-Grade Syndrome and the Promise of Epigenetics


empoweringparents.comBestselling author Anna Quindlen explained somewhere that she stopped writing about her kids when they got to the double digits. By the time they reached 10, she felt that she needed to respect their privacy and keep their inmost thoughts and struggles out of print. I have tried to do that—concentrating on my own battles with the beast of depression and anxiety, and leaving the topic of motherhood and depression to be covered when my offspring graduate from college and give me their permission describe the details of their childhood and all the horrible things I did to them with the best of intentions. But I must touch on this a little—even if leave out their unique symptoms, etc.–because I can’t write authentically about my depression without dedicating a few paragraphs to the two little people in my life I love more than I thought was possible to love anything that has the capacity to projectile vomit.

Every now and then I get a base case of Fourth Grade Syndrome: the illness that mothers get when they fear that their kids will have to live through a certain painful episode that the mothers did or be struggling with some bothersome condition indefinitely, confined to a life of sheer misery. It’s difficult for a person who has struggled with depression for most of her life to not to project that suffering on to her kids: to mesh the emotional scars of her past with the emotions of her children.

I call it Fourth-Grade Syndrome because that’s the year I remember as being disabled by depression. I felt uncomfortable in my skin, like a kind of hostage in a cruel and ugly world. At one point in the year, I couldn’t stop crying for a week and remember my mom not knowing whether or not she should take me to the hospital. I constantly begged God to take me and let me live with Him and the saints.

So when my son experienced some anxiety in the fourth grade, my brain went there: to the memory of me on my knees, begging for a pretty exodus. I figured my son would grow to hate the world as much as I did at that time and that he would fantasize about his own beatification. This last past week the word anxiety surfaced in my daughter’s fourth-grade vocabulary, and I experienced the same panic, mentally prepared myself to pay for 40 years of therapy for her.

“You have to be able to lose your fear of what COULD happen,” a good friend told me yesterday. Having had a painful childhood herself, she struggles in the same way as I do when her kids exhibit any kind of behavior that remind her of those years. She shared a story about a friend of hers who had been raped. The friend is overprotective of her own daughter—won’t let her out of her sight–because she is so afraid that history will repeat itself and the daughter will have to overcome the painful baggage.

“Her daughter could have a bout of anxiety and the mom wouldn’t think much of it,” my friend explained. “But if any situation triggered the memory of the rape, she would feel the same panic you have with the anxiety.”

This is where the new science of epigenetics, the study of external changes made to the DNA that turn our genes “on” or “off,” can help moms feel better. When I find myself saying, Did you really think you could have children who didn’t inherit your junk? How cruel of you to bring kids into this world, knowing full well that they may suffer the way you do, I remember that volumes of research suggest that just because someone is born with genes that predispose him to a lot of suffering does not mean the little kid will suffer. What scientists have discovered in the last ten years is that we can actually control how our genes express themselves.

For example, in December of 2013 a new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reported the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Health Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it was the first paper that showed rapid alterations in gene expression with subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.

My kids have my funky genes, yes. But they also have a much more supportive and nurturing home than I did. They eat brain-healthy foods at every meal, like eggs at breakfast and DHA supplements. They have so many resources available to help them through rough patches that I didn’t. All of these things can impact gene expression.

I think I will feel better when my daughter gets to fifth grade. But for the next week of fourth grade, I shall remember the promise of epigenetics for children of parents with depression, anxiety, or both.

Originally published on Sanity Break.


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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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4 Responses
  1. Beth

    I truly believed our children would skip depression my in laws suffered. I found them strange at first. There panic attack use to be bad but they did not blame there parents. I gave my kids all kind of nuts & home made foods. I keept there life less stressfull hoping the critters in my children’s head would not be visiting like they did at my in laws.

    I was proven wrong it’s worse. My in laws with drew, steped back & stayed home. They went for Yoga, long walks & swimming. My children’s do yoga, swimming, yell, cuss & scream it my fault or there fathers. They blame others for every thing & then cut them off & take new friends.

  2. LM

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. Let’s call it sixth-grade syndrome for me, though. That’s the grade my daughter is in. She is exhibiting the same boy-craziness I did at that age, and puberty has come to rest in our home. It’s also the same age I was when my depression first settled in.

    There is a difference, though, and I remind myself of this every day, much like you do. My daughter hasn’t been sexually victimized like I was, hasn’t been on the receiving end of merciless bullying by peers, and has a much more sensitive and supportive mother than I did at that age. Not to mention a better diet, stronger sense of self, and a more active and engaged father, in spite of her parents being divorced. My father spent most of my childhood in the slump of a severe depression.

    Just because my daughter likes boys and is sneaking around “dating” at her tender age of 11, doesn’t mean that she is destined to make the same mistakes I did. My life is not hers and hers is not mine. But I blame myself, thinking about the men I have dated and introduced her to. Thinking about the Old Testament concept if “generational sin.” Maybe there was no negative impact. Maybe she is not doomed.

    Although I am certain that I, too, will be paying for 40 years of therapy to rectify years 3-9…when I kinda “went off the deep end.” The mommy guilt will consume us, if we let it. Your blogs give me such perspective!