depressed mother
May 16, 2014

Symptoms Of Depression Help Predict How A Mother Might Respond To Child’s Behavior

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A mother's job, and joy, is taking care of her children, but motherhood has its challenges, however rewarding it is. And for a mother suffering from depression, there can be even more daunting challenges.

A new study from The University of Texas at Austin reveals that mothers suffering from depressive symptoms tend to focus on minimizing their own distress, which leads them to miss the impact their responses have on their children.

Many mothers suffer from depressive symptoms, which are linked to worse developmental outcomes for children. The study, published in Psychological Science, recruited 319 mothers and their children and followed them for two years. The findings provide evidence to explain why parenting competence appears to deteriorate as parental symptoms of depression increase.

“Children can often be demanding, needy, unpredictable, uncooperative, and highly active,” said Theodore Dix of the University of Texas at Austin in a recent statement. “The task of parenting, particularly with children who are emotionally reactive, is especially difficult for mothers experiencing symptoms of depression because they are continually attempting to regulate their distress and discomfort.”

Conflicting findings from prior studies indicated that depressed parents are both more negatively responsive and more unresponsive to their children's needs than parents without depression.

The research team, which included Anat Moed and Edward Anderson, questioned if mothers might respond to their children in different ways depending on the child and the situation. They hypothesized that these responses reflect the same underlying process.

“Attempting to minimize immediate distress or discomfort may sometimes prompt mothers to avoid conflict with their children, leading to unresponsive and lax parenting,” said Dix. “At other times, it may lead them to accelerate that conflict to address their child’s aversive behavior, leading to over-reactive parenting.”

Periodic home visits with the participating mothers and children were conducted over the two year study period.

According to the longitudinal data, as depressive symptoms increased for the mothers, they displayed less responsiveness to the children when their behavior wasn't overly unpleasant. The mothers' depressive symptoms predicted increasingly negative responses, however, when the children were particularly unpleasant.

The findings indicate that there is a certain threshold of unpleasantness that mothers with depressive symptoms will tolerate. Below that level, the mothers tend to become less responsive to the behavior, which is perhaps the easiest way for mothers to keep the peace and avoid further negative reactions. This minimizes their own distress.

As the behavior becomes more difficult to tolerate, and crosses that threshold, the mothers are more likely to be confrontational with the child to quash the behavior entirely.

According to Dix, those depressive symptoms seem to drive the mothers to react in ways that will minimize their own distress, and ignore the impact that those reactions might have on their children and the children's needs.

“Given links between lax and over-reactive discipline to child abuse, coercive family process, and developmental problems in children, understanding basic mechanisms that promote these problematic forms of parenting is important,” he concluded.