About 50% of mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had elevated levels of depressive symptoms over 18 months, while rates were much lower (6% to 13.6%) for mothers with neurotypical children in the same period, according to a new study from The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
The report, which was published in Family Process, found that child behavior challenges predicted higher levels of maternal depression down the road, regardless of autism status. Researchers did not see the inverse effect, however; prior maternal depression did not predict child behavior problems later.
In addition, while past studies suggest having a parent with depression increases the risk that children will have mental health and behavior difficulties, this study found something different.
“We found mothers’ higher symptoms of depression did not predict increases in children’s behavior problems over time, including among families with a child with autism who experience a lot of stress,” said Dr. Danielle Roubinov, PhD, UCSF Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and first author of the study. “That was surprising and good news.”
“Being the parent of a child with special needs is inherently challenging every day,” added Dr. Elissa Epel, PhD, UCSF Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. “It is a prototypical example of chronic stress, which is why we have been focusing on caregiving moms in our studies that examine effects of stress on health.”
Self-blame and guilt among parents of autistic children is common and predicts worsening depression and lower life satisfaction over time, the team’s past research shows.
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In the 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 a maternal report on the Child’s Challenging Behavior Scale. The researchers said future studies should also look at associations between maternal depression and children’s internalizing symptoms (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, emotional reactivity).
Following the study, the researchers offered mindfulness classes to all parents to help manage parenting stress.