A study published in BMC Psychology found evidence that mothers’ pretend play may protect children from behavioral difficulties two years later. The study additionally found that mothers with anxiety engage in less pretend play with their children, and their children partake in less pretend play, too.
Pretend play serves a fundamental role in a child’s development. This type of imaginary play allows children to exercise communication skills, practice positive social relationships, and explore new emotions in a safe context. At early ages, pretend play is often facilitated by adults, leading psychologists to question whether a parent’s anxiety or depression might impede a child’s engagement in play.
Study authors Zhen Rao and her team note the existing evidence that parental anxiety and depression impact the way parents interact with their children. And yet little research has explored how parental psychopathology might influence the types of play parents engage in with their children. Rao and her colleagues conducted a study to explore whether a mother’s anxiety and depression might impact her engagement in pretend play with her child. They also explored how maternal anxiety might affect a child’s engagement in pretend play and her child’s behavioral outcomes two years later.
The study sample consisted of 60 mother-child pairings who took part in two home-based assessments. At the baseline assessment, when the children were between the ages of 2 and 3, the mothers were given a toy set and asked to play with their child as they typically would. These five minutes of free play were recorded and later coded by a team of researchers who analyzed how often the mother and child each engaged in pretend play (e.g., pretending to drink from an empty cup). At the initial visit, and again at a follow-up two years later, the mothers completed assessments of anxiety and depression, in addition to a checklist measuring their child’s behavior.
After extensive analysis, the findings revealed that mothers with greater anxiety engaged in less pretend play with their children during the free play interaction. Rao and her colleagues say this suggests that anxiety serves as an obstacle to a mother’s engagement in pretend play. For example, a preoccupation with anxious thoughts might lead anxious mothers to miss out on their child’s cues or misinterpret them, preventing them from responding to their child’s play in a supportive manner.
Importantly, the children of mothers with elevated anxiety and depression also engaged in less pretend play. This was true even when controlling for mothers’ engagement in pretend play. Together, this suggests that maternal anxiety and depression can impact a child’s engagement in play beyond simply reducing mothers’ play behavior. The study authors suggest that mothers with anxiety and depression might otherwise impact their child’s play behavior through modeling or insecure attachment.
Finally, there was some evidence that children whose mothers had engaged in more pretend play at the initial visit, presented with fewer behavioral issues two years later. This was after taking into account children’s behavioral problems and mothers’ anxiety levels at baseline. While the effect size was weak, this finding suggests that mother-child pretend play might serve as a tool to foster children’s healthy development and reduce future behavioral problems. It could also be that mother-child pretend play reduces children’s behavior issues by fostering a healthy mother-child bond.
“The current study has important implications for healthcare and community practices,” Rao and her team emphasize. “It suggests that supporting mothers to engage in pretend play with their children could be a target for interventions aimed at families affected by maternal anxiety and depression.” The researchers say that future studies will be important to further understand the interplay between maternal anxiety and depression, mothers’ engagement in pretend play, and children’s development.
The study, “Maternal anxiety and depression and their associations with mother–child pretend play: a longitudinal observational study”, was authored by Zhen Rao, Beth Barker, Christine O’Farrelly, and Paul Ramchandani.