Beyond Pills: Life Experiences Affect Maternal Depressive Symptoms…and Kids

WashingtonDC – Depression can adversely affect every aspect of a person’s life. When the depressed person is a mother, her children are not spared from adverse affects. The child outcome focused on in this research brief is child externalizing, or “acting out” behavior. This behavior is an important measure of child development in the early elementary years, and it is related to poorer academic outcomes and problem behaviors when children are older.


The key findings in Child Trends’ latest research brief, Depression Among Moms: Prevalence, Predictors, and Acting Out Among Third Grade Children, reveal that depressive symptoms are higher among economically disadvantaged mothers, mothers receiving welfare payments, and mothers in unhappy relationships. Furthermore, mothers’ depressive symptoms are related to more acting out behaviors in their children, partly because depressed mothers are more likely to use inappropriate discipline strategies with their children.


Child Trends analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) for this study. ECLS-K is a nationally representative study that has been following 20,000 children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998. Child Trends’ researchers studied 9,037 children whose mothers or female guardians responded to parent questionnaires in the spring of 1999. The surveys included questions about depressive symptoms.


“Research has established a link between maternal depression and negative child outcomes,” statedElizabeth Hair, Ph.D., a lead author of the study, “but gaps still remain. We wanted to connect theantecedents of parental depression to child outcomes.” Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D., Senior Scholar and lead author, noted that, “This brief points out that a number of the circumstances that leads mothers to be depressed – such as being dependent on welfare or having unhappy marital relationships – have a public policy dimension.”


Child Trends’ research on maternal depression complements findings from the biomedical study just completed and reported in the March 22, 2006 issue of the . Child Trends’ research studies environmental and social circumstances of maternal depressive symptoms. According to Moore, “These two studies are complementary. Both studies find that maternal depression affects children. And when discussing maternal depression and child outcomes, what we do know is that many factors are important. Child Trends’ study connects the pieces of the puzzle. It examines the antecedents of a mother’s depressive symptoms and how that affects her parenting behavior, which ultimately affects her child’s outcomes.”


This research brief examined seven policy-relevant antecedents that may be amenable to policy intervention:

  • Welfare receipt
  • Maternal work
  • Income
  • Financial difficulties
  • Marital status
  • Relationship quality, and
  • Mother’s educational attainment.



  • 6.4 percent of children in the kindergarten class of 1998-99 had a mother who reported symptoms of depression. Depressive symptoms were found to be higher among economically disadvantaged mothers and mothers in unhappy relationships. Depressive symptoms are related to more acting out (externalizing behavior) in children.


  • The study found that children’s acting out is affected by a variety of difficulties in the lives of children’s mothers, several of which may be amenable to policy intervention, such as financial problems, welfare receipt, relationship unhappiness, and income.The study found that nearly all of the policy-relevant measures that were examined are related to children’s acting out – directly and also indirectly through the mother’s depression. Maternal depression in turn increases children’s acting out through parenting, such as inappropriate disciplinary strategies (making fun of the child and hitting).


  • When parental education and family income are higher and mothers describe their relationship with their spouse or partner as more satisfactory, children tend to act out less, over and above the effects of background factors such as race/ethnicity and health.


  • Mothers who receive welfare, have financial problems, work very long hours, and work during a child’s preschool years have children who are more likely to act out in third grade.


  • Greater relationship satisfaction is related to fewer depressive symptoms.

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