The effects of changes in maternal depressive symptoms on children's school functioning in a high-risk sample: the mediating role of maternal behaviors, children's social competence, and children's emotional adjustment

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Valdez Chávez, Carmen Renée

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Depression is a highly prevalent disorder among women of childbearing age. At any given time, approximately 8-12% of mothers are clinically depressed. Maternal depression has been associated with problematic outcomes in families, including impaired parenting, higher levels of conflict, socio-emotional difficulties in children, and poor academic outcomes for children. Although the effects of maternal depression on children have been well documented, little is known about children’s functioning once mothers’ symptoms change or alleviate. There is also a gap in knowledge about how maternal depressive symptoms affect children’s outcomes. The purpose of this study is to move beyond the description of effects of maternal depression on children to examine some underlying mechanisms that explain the effects of changes in maternal depressive symptoms on children’s educational functioning. The sample consisted of 106 low- income families in which the majority of mothers were depressed and participating in a randomized treatment intervention. Women’s symptoms of depression were assessed at baseline and 8-10 months later, while maternal behaviors, children’s social competence, emotional adjustment, and their academic outcomes (school behaviors, academic achievement, academic performance) were assessed at 12 months of baseline. Findings suggested that changes in maternal depressive symptoms 8-10 months after baseline affected maternal or parenting behaviors but did not influence children’s later social, emotional and education outcomes. The initial level of maternal depressive symptoms, on the other hand, had a meaningful influence on children’s later school behaviors and academic performance though changes in social competence and emotional adjustment in children. The initial level of maternal depressive symptoms had a direct effect on children’s later academic achievement, but this effect was not explained by maternal behaviors or children’s socio-emotional functioning. Thus, support was found for maternal depression to have a long-term effect on children’s adjustment. The findings were discussed in the context of the existing literature and recommendations for future research included overcoming barriers to identifying depression in low-income samples, implementing and evaluating preventive interventions for depression, designing interventions that promote family and community resources, and designing school-based policies and interventions for the effective identification and intervention of children at risk for problematic outcomes.