A new study provides evidence that self-blame plays an important role in the link between a mother’s depressive symptoms and similar symptoms in her children. The findings have been published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
“Children of depressed mothers are 2-3 times more likely to develop depressive symptoms themselves; but there are many children who go on to live healthy lives. We were interested in understanding which children are most vulnerable to developing depression in the context of having a mother with depressive symptoms,” explained Chrystyna D. Kouros, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Family Health and Development Lab at Southern Methodist University.
“Children’s self-blame appraisals (thoughts that something is your fault and you are responsible) have been shown to be a risk factor for other stressors, like interparental conflict and sexual victimization, but no one had studied these specific types of thoughts in the context of maternal depression.”
In the study, 129 mothers were asked to agree or disagree with 20 statements like “I could not shake off the blues” and “I lost interest in my usual activities” to assess if they had depressive symptoms, even if they had not actually been diagnosed with depression. Nearly 12 percent of the women surveyed were found to have potential clinical levels of depressive symptoms.
One of their children (average age 13.63 years), meanwhile, completed a survey measuring their perceptions of maternal depression along with an assessment of internalizing symptoms.
The researchers found that children who felt responsible for their mothers’ depressive symptoms tended to have higher levels of internalizing symptoms. In other words, children who agreed with statements such as “Even if she doesn’t say it, I know it’s my fault that my mother gets sad” were more likely to experience worry and sadness themselves.
“Some children blame themselves and think it’s their fault when they see that their mother is sad. These children are at greater risk for developing depression and anxiety symptoms themselves. Hopefully, open talking about feelings and emotion in families can correct some of these misconceptions,” Kouros told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“First, we need to replicate this study since this is the first study to test children’s self-blame attributions and there are some limitations of this study, such as a relatively small sample of 129 mothers and children, and we used a community sample so there were not that many mothers who had clinical levels of depression. Second, it’s also important to study these question for father-child pairs, as well,” Kouros explained.
“The ‘good news’ about the findings is that negative thinking patterns (like self-blame appraisals) are something that is modifiable. That means, this is a potential risk factor that we can be changed with preventive interventions,” she added.
The study, “Children’s Self-blame Appraisals about their Mothers’ Depressive Symptoms and Risk for Internalizing Symptoms“, was authored by Chrystyna D. Kouros, Sharyl E. Wee, Chelsea N. Carson, and Naomi V. Ekas.