Mothers with Depression: Ability to Parent Affected

depressionA recent study suggests that a mother’s depression may affect her ability to parent successfully; therefore, treatment is critical.[1] Researchers have found that depressive symptoms cause mothers to focus on their own distress—which is completely natural—yet, this may have a negative impact on their children.1

According to experts, depressive symptoms are common among mothers; however, these symptoms are also linked with unfavorable developmental outcomes for their children.1 Therefore, the recent study followed 319 mothers and their children over a period of two years, to help explain why parenting competence seems to deteriorate as the parents’ symptoms of depression increase.1

“Children can often be demanding, needy, unpredictable, uncooperative, and highly active,” said lead researcher Theodore Dix, PhD. “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.”1

Previous studies have yielded conflicted findings, with some indicating that depressed parents are both more negatively responsive and more unresponsive than parents without depression.1 Dix and University of Texas colleagues Edward Anderson, PhD, and graduate student Anat Moed hypothesized that depressed mothers may respond to their children in different ways, depending on their unique situation, but these responses would reflect the same underlying process.1

“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.”1

Longitudinal data from the study showed that as mothers’ symptoms of depression increased, they became less responsive to their children’s behavior, but only when that behavior was not too unpleasant.1 On the other hand, when the children’s behavior was too unpleasant, the mothers’ symptoms of depression led to increased negative responses.1 Therefore, as long as the child’s behavior is pleasant enough, not reacting to the behavior is the easiest way for mothers to keep composed and avoid further negative reactions with their children and increasing their own distress.1

“Ultimately, depressive symptoms seem to steer mothers’ focus toward minimizing their own distress away from the impact that their behavior has on the child and the child’s needs,” said Dix. “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.”1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Depressed Moms May Focus on Self Rather than Kids’ Needs. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/16/depressed-moms-may-focus-on-self-rather-than-kids-needs/69909.html

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