Symptoms of depression are often self-sustaining through maladaptive social and cognitive processes. For mothers, parent–child relationships may be a central interpersonal context in which such processes occur. The current study evaluated whether mothers with elevated depressive symptoms differ in cognitive-emotional experiences of parent–child interactions (i.e., more intense maternal guilt, greater self-blame for difficult interactions, observations of more negative child affect), and whether these tendencies contribute to symptom severity one month later. Amazon MTurk was used to recruit mothers (N = 212 at baseline; N = 180 (85%) at one-month follow-up) of children in one of three developmental periods (early childhood, school age, adolescence). Mothers completed online measures of maternal and child symptoms, observations of children’s emotions, and open-ended prompts about emotional parent–child interactions. Narrative responses were analyzed using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software. Indirect effects (depression T1 → maternal guilt and self-blame → depression T2) and moderated mediational paths were tested. Mothers with elevated depression used more negative words and showed greater self-focus when recollecting guilt incidents, and attributed more responsibility to themselves for their children’s difficult emotions. Negative guilt intensity and self-blame functioned as parallel indirect effects contributing to depressive symptoms one month later, but the magnitude of effects depended on mothers’ observations of happiness and frustration in her child. While a tendency towards maternal guilt and self-blame may sustain maternal depression symptoms, experiencing one’s child as happier or less frustrated could have protective effects for depressed mothers.
Cognitive-emotional and linguistic risk factors for sustained depression at one-month follow-up were studied in 212 mothers.
Mothers with elevated depression used more negative and self-focused language when recalling experiences of parenting guilt.
These mothers also placed more responsibility on themselves for their children’s challenging emotions.
Maternal guilt and self-blame for children’s emotions contributed to higher levels of depressive symptoms one month later.
However, mothers’ perceptions of children’s emotions shaped the impact of cognitive-emotional risk factors.
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There are no funding sources or conflicts of interest to declare. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by Stephanie Milan, Ph.D.
Ethics approval was obtained from the University of Connecticut Institutional Review Board and informed consent was obtained from all participants.
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Derella, O.J., Milan, S. I Felt Like a Terrible Mom: Parenting-Related Cognitive Processes Maintaining Maternal Depression. J Child Fam Stud 30, 2427–2439 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-021-02053-8
- Maternal depression
- Cognitive biases
- Maternal guilt
- Parent–child relations