Children of depressed mothers are more socially withdrawn and less motivated to engage events actively, which could explain why they do poorly in school

Photo: Cristiano Betta. Creative Commons.

It is well known that children of depressed mothers display language impairments, attention problems and a range of cognitive difficulties. A study by Ni Yan and Ted Dix of the University of Texas at Austin took a closer look at how this might happen.

Yan and Dix examined data on 1,364 families from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

In addition to the mothers’ depressive symptoms during the child’s first two years and the child’s first-grade cognitive abilities, both verbal and mathematical, the following variables were measured:

  • The extent to which the child was withdrawn, as reported by the mother and other caregivers.
  • The extent to which the child was motivated to engage events actively, as observed during play with unfamiliar toys.
  • The degree to which mothers displayed sensitivity to the child, as observed in mother-child interactions.
  • The amount of cognitive stimulation mothers provided to the child – how they helped the child gain new skills and solve problems.

All of these were measured by observing mothers and children interact during play when the child was 3 years old and again when the child was 4½ years old.

Statistical analyses pointed to children’s social withdrawal and low motivation to engage events actively as key factors that help explain the link between maternal depression during the child’s infancy and poor first-grade performance on cognitive tests.

Relative to other children, children whose mothers were depressed when they were infants were more socially withdrawn by age 3, and this withdrawal in turn was linked to being relatively unmotivated to engage events actively at age 4½. We know from other research that being unmotivated to engage events is a key predictor of low performance on cognitive tests. As a result, socially withdrawn children are likely to acquire relatively few skills and to lack confidence in their abilities.

When children are withdrawn, mothers are likely to be less sensitive later and to provide less cognitive stimulation. Declines in these parenting qualities in turn predict declines in the child’s motivation to engage events, providing another link to poor performance on cognitive tests. Withdrawn children, who can be difficult to read and who initiate little interaction, can discourage maternal input. And, in a negative feedback loop, insensitive parenting is likely to undermine children’s confidence and the degree to which they explore, persist, and attempt to master activities.

Yan N & Dix T, Mothers’ Depressive Symptoms and Children’s Cognitive and Social Agency: Predicting First-Grade Cognitive Functioning, Developmental Psychology, 2016