Journal of Child and Family Studies

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 483–497 | Cite as

Mothers’ Empathic Understanding of their Toddlers: Associations with Maternal Depression and Sensitivity

  • Lisa W. Coyne
  • Christine M. Low
  • Alison L. Miller
  • Ronald Seifer
  • Susan Dickstein
Original Paper


Mothers’ empathic understanding of their children’s motives, thoughts, and feelings is thought to guide parenting behaviors and shape the mother-child relationship. However, little is known about the relation between empathic understanding and parenting behaviors during developmental shifts that may be emotionally challenging for mothers, such as the transition from infancy to the toddler years, or how it may relate to maternal depressive symptoms. We assessed relations between maternal empathic understanding, depression, and sensitivity. We developed a coding system, the Empathic Understanding Assessment (EUA), to measure this construct in the mothers of 30-month old children. One hundred twenty eight mother-child pairs participated in a series of lab-based tasks designed to be challenging for the children. Mothers then watched these videotaped interactions and responded to questions regarding their children’s experiences. Interview content was coded using the EUA. Results indicated that mothers higher in empathic understanding and more intensely emotional were rated as more sensitive. Maternal depression was negatively related to empathic understanding. The importance of considering the role of maternal empathic understanding in parenting behavior is discussed, as are potential implications for child outcomes.


Mothers Empathic understanding Sensitivity Depression Experiential avoidance 



This research was supported by NIHM grants R01- MH51301 to Ronald Seifer, a K01-MH-066139–04 to Alison L. Miller, and an Institutional Research Fellowship (T32-MH19927–11) to Lisa W. Coyne. The first author would like to thank Amy R. Murrell and Jane A. Bybee for their thoughtful comments on this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa W. Coyne
    • 1
  • Christine M. Low
    • 2
  • Alison L. Miller
    • 2
  • Ronald Seifer
    • 2
  • Susan Dickstein
    • 2
  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentSuffolk UniversityBostonUSA
  2. 2.Early Childhood Clinical Research CenterBrown Medical School/E. P. Bradley HospitalEast ProvidenceUSA

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