Half of Moms of Kids with Autism Have High Depressive Symptoms

Posted on September 7, 2022

The researchers found that child behavior problems predicted higher levels of maternal depression down the road, regardless of ASD status. They didn’t see the inverse effect, however; prior maternal depression didn’t predict child behavior problems later.

“The finding that maternal depression does not lead to worsened child symptoms is especially important for mothers of children with ASD to help alleviate guilt many mothers feel about their children’s diagnosis and behavior problems,” said Roubinov. “We hope these findings will reassure mothers that it’s both common to struggle with some depression in this high-stress situation of chronic caregiving, and that their depression likely isn’t making their child’s behavioral issues worse.”

Self-blame and guilt among parents of ASD children is common and predicts worsening depression and lower life satisfaction over time, the team’s past research shows.

In the current study, the researchers repeatedly measured maternal depression and children’s behavior problems in 86 mother-child dyads across 18 months. Half of the mothers had children with ASD and half had neurotypical children. The age range of children in the study was two to 16 years old, though the majority (75%) of the children were elementary age or younger.

Maternal depression was measured using the Inventory of Depressive Symptoms, a self-report scale completed by mothers. Child behavior was measured through maternal report on the Child’s Challenging Behavior Scale, which focuses on externalizing behaviors such as tantrums, aggression and defiance. The researchers said future studies should also look at associations between maternal depression and children’s internalizing symptoms (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, emotional reactivity).

Bidirectional associations between maternal depression and child behavior problems have been reported in prior research. However, few studies have examined these relationships in families with autism.

Families with autism tend to experience more marital conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and many other challenges, said Roubinov.

“A stressful family environment may spill over onto family members and could change the ways mothers and children relate to each other,” she said. “We wanted to see whether the link between maternal and child mental health was different in the context of a high-stress family system, such as when a child has autism.”

Although the study acknowledged that families with a child with ASD experience high levels of stress, the authors were cautious to note that stress is not their only defining characteristic.

“Many mothers of children with autism also report high levels of emotional closeness and positive interactions with their children,” Roubinov said. “These are important experiences that supportive programs can build upon.”

Following the study, the researchers offered mindfulness classes to all parents to help manage parenting stress. “The parents were grateful to share common challenges and learn inner strategies to cope,” Epel said. “Many studies have shown that mindfulness training can help with parenting stress, and we also found our parents showed improved mental health.”

Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders, Caregiver Issues / Stress

Source material from University of California San Francisco