Maternal depression and children's adjustment problems : the role of mothers' affective reactivity

Moed, Anat
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Mothers with depressive symptoms often express more negative emotions than other mothers, react more punitively, and express more frustration (e.g., Belsky, 1984). Paradoxically, mothers with depressive symptoms are also often found to be less, not more, reactive and to express flat rather than negative affect. These mothers are often described as emotionally "flat", unresponsive, and withdrawn (Kochanska, Kuczynski, Radke-Yarrow, & Welsh, 1987). Mothers' depressive symptoms are also associated with problematic parenting, interfering with children's social development (e.g., Goodman et al., 2011). This study investigated the possibility that mothers with depressive symptoms regulate their affect as a coping strategy to minimize distress when facing aversive child behaviors. Using observational and reported longitudinal data from 319 mother-child dyads, we examined how mothers' affective reactivity changes as a function of (a) changes in mothers' depressive symptoms, and (b) changes in children’s aversiveness during the course of the mother-child interaction. Depressive symptoms were associated with mothers' under-reactivity to low aversive child behaviors. Depressive symptoms also predicted rapid increases in mothers' negative reactivity as children's aversiveness increased, and negative over-reactivity to highly aversive child behaviors. Mothers' affective under-reactivity, over-reactivity, and depressive symptoms were all associated with children's adjustment problems over a two-year period. Results suggest that when aversive child behaviors are minimally disturbing, mothers with depressive symptoms minimize child rearing strain by not reacting; when aversive child behaviors are highly disturbing, they do so by resisting and controlling the child. Findings may enable us to understand adaptations that undermine parenting and place children at risk.