Maternal Depression and Child Psychopathology: A Two-Way Street

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Weve had a lot of research come out on the effects of maternal depression on children.  We know that these kids have higher rates of social, emotional, and mental health issues.  Well, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology recently published a study that looks at the arrow going the other way.  That is, it looks at the effect that child psychopathology has on moms in terms of depression and child-related stress.  What they found was that the street runs both ways between maternal and child mental health.

Raposa and colleagues (2011) looked at data from a large pool of mother-child pairs that had been followed for a pregnancy study.  Information was collected on the pairs during pregnancy to child age five and at child age 15 and 20.  This data was collected from well-known standardized interviews, meaning that they were both reliable and valid in collecting information on certain mental health-related topics.  The researchers looked at maternal depression, child psychopathology, child-related stress, and demographic information. 

The authors were specifically interested in looking at the impact of youth (age 15 and 20) psychopathology on mothers so they controlled for youth gender, SES, and maternal depression prior to age 15.  The results indicated that, indeed, maternal depression could be predicted by having a youth with a history of mental health diagnoses both at the time the youth was 15 and 20 years of age.   

In looking at child-related stress, the number of past child mental health diagnoses significantly predicted a higher number of acute stressors for mothers as well as more chronic stress in the mother-child relationship at age 15.  These increased levels of maternal stress and mother-child relationship stress at age 15 then predicted higher levels of maternal depression when the youth were 20 years old. 

Looking more closely at the data, the authors found that it was the chronic stress in the mother-child relationship and the child-related acute stressors that were the linchpins between child psychopathology and maternal depression.  The stress is what fueled the fires between mother and child mental health.  Going one step further, the researchers found that youth with a history of more than one diagnosis as well as youth that had externalizing disorders (e.g., conduct disorder) had the highest number of child-related stressors and the highest levels of mother-child stress.  Again, all of the findings held up when other potentially stressful variables, such as economic worries and past maternal depression, were controlled for.

So what does this study teach us?  While maternal depression has been found to have negative effects on children, children’s history of mental health problems also has negative effects on maternal depression.  Most importantly, the stress that the child’s poor mental health history brings to the mother’s plate and the mother-child relationship seems to be the key to understand and address.

Tackling the stress can be both overwhelming and complex, making support a must and professional intervention highly recommended.  I know that for some parents that hear the words “parent education”, an image of some know-it-all that tells you how you’re screwing up comes to mind.  On the contrary, parent education sessions can be a lifeline and a source of empowerment for parents.  They can be a place where parents realize that they are not alone in their struggles and gain much-needed support, where they can learn more information on their children’s diagnoses and difficulties, where they can troubleshoot ways to manage trying situations, structure daily living to bring down the stress, and create more positive interactions with their children.  In addition, family and individual therapy can be other tools that can help improve the mother-child relationship as well as the well-being of the entire family. 

Having a child with psychopathology can be a huge challenge.  Managing that challenge in the midst of high levels of parent-child stress and your own depression is a whopper that nobody should have to tackle alone.  Best wishes to all of the moms out there that are facing these challenges.  -Anita

Source: Raposa, E., Hammen, C., & Brennan, P. (2011). Effects of Child Psychopathology on Maternal Depression: The Mediating Role of Child-Related Acute and Chronic Stressors Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-011-9536-0