Depression in mothers and the externalizing and internalizing behavior of children: An attempt to go beyond association.

William E. Pelham, Stephen G. West, Kathryn Lemery-Chalfant, Sherryl H. Goodman, Melvin N. Wilson, Thomas Dishion, Daniel S. Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Hundreds of studies have documented an association between depression in mothers and behavior problems in children. Theory and empirical findings suggest this association may be confounded by other factors, but little attention has been paid to this issue. We used propensity score methods in a sample of 731 low-income families assessed repeatedly from child age 2 through 14 years to produce a weighted sample of families that were similar at child age 3 years except for mothers’ depression. Depressive symptomatology was measured via self-report rating scale. Mothers were categorized as having clinically-elevated versus non-clinically-elevated scores based on an established threshold. Mothers with elevated versus nonelevated scores were equated on 89 other relevant characteristics (e.g., SES, child behavior, marital conflict). We then compared the equated groups on mother, secondary caregiver, and teacher ratings of child externalizing and internalizing behavior from child ages 4 to 14 years. Prior to equating, the mean prima facie effect of exposure to clinically-elevated mothers’ depression scores at child age 3 years was d = 0.45 per mothers, d = 0.26 per secondary caregivers, and d = 0.13 per teachers. After equating, the mean adjusted effect was d = 0.07 per mothers, d = 0.01 per secondary caregivers, and d = 0.03 per teachers. Findings suggest that a substantial portion of the prima facie association between mothers’ depression and later child behavior problems is accounted for by confounding variables rather than a causal effect of depressive symptoms per se. To fully understand why children of depressed mothers exhibit more behavior problems, a multicausal theory is needed that jointly considers the cluster of co-occurring clinical features that often accompany maternal depression. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved) General Scientific Summary: Children whose mothers reported clinically-elevated symptoms of depression at child age 3 years exhibited more externalizing and internalizing behavior between ages 4 and 14 years than children whose mothers did not report clinically significant symptoms of depression. Yet, when families with depressed versus nondepressed mothers were equated on many background variables, the size of the difference shrank substantially. Studies exploring developmental processes that link mothers’ depression to children's behavior problems may produce misleading results when they do not account for the many ways in which families with depressed and nondepressed mothers differ.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-77
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • child psychopathology
  • externalizing
  • internalizing
  • maternal depression
  • propensity score

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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