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I Felt Like a Terrible Mom: Parenting-Related Cognitive Processes Maintaining Maternal Depression

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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.

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Both authors contributed to the current study conception and design, as well as to manuscript writing, modification, and final approval.

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Correspondence to Olivia J. Derella.

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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).

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