Apr. 24, 2001 University Park, Pa. --- A Penn State study has shown that elementary school children who have depressed mothers may have trouble regulating their emotions and getting along with other kids because their moms are unable to show them enough warmth and sensitivity.
Dr. Mark T. Greenberg, who holds the Edna Peterson Bennett Chair in Prevention Research, says, "Researchers have known for some time that maternal depression places a child at risk for problems in emotion regulation and peer relationships. Our recent study has shown that at least part of the risk can be explained by the fact that depressed mothers show less warmth toward their children." The study, which is part of the doctoral dissertation of Greenberg's student, Dr. Chi-Ming Kam, is one of only a few to trace the lasting influence of maternal depression to a lack of warmth. The researchers say the findings suggest that programs that help parents enjoy their relationships with their children can be helpful.
In addition, Greenberg says, "Since most people who are depressed don't go to mental health professionals for treatment, doctors and nurses who see women regularly should be alert for depressive symptoms. Early detection and treatment can have positive effects on the children as well as the mothers."
Kam will present the study results in a poster, "Effects of Maternal Depression on Children's Social and Emotional Functioning During the Early School Years," today (April 21) at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Minneapolis, MN.
He says the study data were drawn from observations made as part of the Fast Track project that involves schools and parents working together to help at-risk children. Fast Track is both a service and research program that operates in Durham, N.C., Seattle, Wash., and Nashville, Tenn., as well as central Pennsylvania. While helping individual children overcome learning obstacles and behavior patterns that prevent them from growing into productive members of society, the researchers are, at the same time, developing new theories and treatments.
The study participants included 358 mother/child pairs from whom the researchers assembled data from the time the children started first grade until they entered grade 3. In school, teachers rated the children's ability to regulate their emotions. The children's classmates rated how well they were accepted by the other kids at school.
In addition, trained observers visited the study participant's homes where they asked the mothers, each year, to complete a survey questionnaire about any depressive symptoms they may have had. The observers also asked the mothers and kids to work on several tasks as they watched. These tasks included five-minute sessions of free play; parent-directed play and building with interlocking blocks. The observers watched the mother/child pairs as they worked on the task to see if the mothers encouraged their children, gave hints, showed enjoyment, and exhibited sensitivity and enthusiasm for the child's efforts.
The researchers found that the more symptoms of depression the mother reported in the questionnaire, the less warmth they showed to their child. Some depressed mothers were unable to show any response at all. Others were highly critical of their child's efforts or were hostile during the observation period.
In addition, the researchers found that the more symptoms of depression the mother had, the more likely the child was to have problems regulating their emotions and getting along with other kids. Kam says, "Our study showed that one possible reason these children may have trouble getting along might be the inability of depressed mothers to cultivate emotion regulation skills in their children. Emotion regulation skills have been found to be an important component of social competence."
The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
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