Poor Mother-Child Relationships Play an Influential Role In The Intergenerational Transmission of Depression

Jessica George ’24

Figure 1 Mother-child relationships play a key role in child depression vulnerability.

Depression is a multifactorial condition, shaped by a variety of social factors such as relationships with others. Early childhood is a pivotal time of an individual’s life in shaping future interactions and behaviors. During this stage in life, parents play a vital role in a child’s social development, which poses the question of how a parent-child relationship could affect a child’s vulnerability to depression later on in life. A recent publication from Dr. Autumn Kujawa, from the department of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues evaluated the effects of mother-child relationships in the intergenerational transmission of depression. 

Participants consisted of 559 children (recruited at the age of 3) and their parents from the Stony Brook Temperament Study. Dr. Kujawa and his team then observed participants while they completed six different standardized tasks such as block building to assess mother-child relationship and parenting quality. High scores on these tasks indicated a positive relationship between the mother and child, with participants exhibiting harmony and reciprocity, quick conflict resolution behaviors, and maternal support and instruction. Low scores indicated poor harmony and reciprocity, conflicts without resolution, and maternal hostility (including anger and annoyance). Additionally, the team assessed for depression history in mothers through diagnostic telephone interviews using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM–IV. Results of the interviews revealed that 29.8% of mothers had a history of major depressive disorder (MDD), dysthymia/persistent depressive disorder (PDD), or a combination of both. When the child participants reached the age of 12, researchers interviewed the adolescents and one parent (92.2% biological mother, 7.8% biological father) for stress and depressive symptoms using the youth version of the UCLA Chronic Life Stress Interview. Adolescents also completed a task in which reactivity to rejection was recorded. Results of the tests revealed that incidence of maternal depression was associated with a poor mother-child relationship. At the age of 3, a low mother–child relationship quality was associated with a greater reactivity to rejection as well as increased peer stress in adolescence. Negative parenting behaviors such as lack of support, low confidence, and lack of instruction in a mother–child relationship can account for the high adolescent reactivity to peer rejection. 

The findings of this study confirm that the maternal-child relationship plays a significant role in a child’s susceptibility to depressive symptoms. Furthermore, this study calls upon additional research to determine which components of parenting could be targeted to prevent depression in children.  

Works Cited:

[1] A. Kujawa, et al., Effects of maternal depression and mother–child relationship quality in early childhood on neural reactivity to rejection and peer stress in adolescence: a 9-year longitudinal study. Clinical Psychological Science 8, 657–672 (2020). doi: 10.1177/2167702620902463

[2] Image retrieved from: https://novumpsychiatry.com/blog/postpartum-depression/


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