Deep Impact of Maternal Depression

We innately understand that children flourish in safe and caring environments created by strong family bonds. 

So how does a caregiver’s clinical depression affect the young? 

Ted Dix, associate professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, has detailed the profound impact of maternal depression on a child’s social development in a series of papers published over the last decade. Young children living with depressed mothers are more inhibited and disengaged than their peers.

Credit: Jenna Luecke

“If a child grows up in a world with unresponsive adults—like Mom won’t get the toy from a top shelf—they learn that an expected outcome cannot be achieved,” says Dix. “A mother’s negative response interferes with a child’s feeling of control because children depend on adults for so many things.” 

Dix observes and analyzes mothers and their children in a clinical setting. Normally, young children have a healthy, defiant response to mothers when the children don’t like a task. (“No, I don’t want to put toys away!”) Children of clinically depressed mothers, on the other hand, respond with passive non-compliance, ignoring their parent altogether. These children choose to pass under the radar by not obeying; they talk with their parent less and initiate fewer positive interactions.

“When a child lives in a family-interactive context in which their interests and desire to interact socially are rebuffed, their way to adapt is to withdraw,” says Dix. “While this solves the child’s interaction with the mother, it is not adaptive when interacting with other children and adults.”

The long-term consequences are now becoming clear. Children who spend their first two years of life with depressed mothers are more socially withdrawn by age three. They have low mastery motivation, or low enthusiasm and persistence, which often translates into poor academic performance in elementary school. They even develop fewer facial expressions than their peers.

“The risk of social and cognitive problems increases when children are less engaged,” says Dix. “But the good news is that medical practitioners and policy makers can work to change this pattern by making mental health a priority and working to help mothers who need assistance.”