Half of Moms of Kids With Autism Have High Depressive Symptoms

Summary: 50% of mothers who have children on the autism spectrum report symptoms of depression over an 18-month period, a new study reports.

Source: UCSF

About 50% of all 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, UCSF researchers report in a new study published August 26 in Family Process.

In addition, while past studies suggest having a parent with depression increases the risk that children will have mental health and behavior problems, 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 Danielle Roubinov, Ph.D., 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,” noted Elissa Epel, Ph.D., UCSF professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, and senior author of the study. “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.”

“We already know from this sample that mothers with more depression tend to have signs of faster biological aging, such as lower levels of the anti-aging hormone klotho and older immune cells, on average,” added Epel. Here, we wanted to understand the impact of their depression on their child, and vice versa.”

A One-Way Street

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).

Few studies on maternal depression, child behavior in ASD context

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.

This shows a drawing of a mom and child
The researchers found that child behavior problems predicted higher levels of maternal depression down the road, regardless of ASD status. Image is in the public domain

“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.”

It is important to experience and notice positive emotions and joy, despite having a more challenging life situation, said Epel.

“Given the effects of chronic stress on health and mood, caregiving parents need extraordinary emotional support in addition to the special services for their child,” she said. “It’s as vital to provide support for parents’ mental health as it is for children’s mental health.”

Physicians should be on the lookout for parental distress and ready to offer resources for parents, especially for parents of special needs children, she said. In the Bay Area, support groups can be found at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s California chapter, Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, and through some health insurers.

About this ASD and depression research news

Author: Press Office
Source: UCSF
Contact: Press Office – UCSD
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Is it me or my child? The association between maternal depression and children’s behavior problems in mothers and their children with or without autism” by Danielle Roubinov et al. Family Process


Is it me or my child? The association between maternal depression and children’s behavior problems in mothers and their children with or without autism

Bidirectional associations between maternal depression and child behavior problems have been reported in prior research, however, few studies examine these relations across varied family contexts.

This study examined parenting stress and child diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as moderators of bidirectional associations between maternal depression and child behavior problems over time.

Our sample included 86 mother–child dyads who reported maternal depressive symptoms, child behavior problems, and parenting stress at three time points over more than 1 year. Approximately half were mothers of children with ASD (n = 41) and half were mothers of neurotypical children (n = 45).

We tested the bidirectional associations between maternal depressive symptoms and children’s behavior problems and the potential moderating role of parental stress or child ASD diagnosis on these bidirectional associations using aggregated, lagged, and linear mixed models. Even after controlling for lagged maternal depressive symptoms, child behavior problems were associated with greater subsequent maternal depression at the between-person level, but not at the within-person level.

The converse relation of prior maternal depressive symptoms on subsequent child behavior problems was not significant. Neither parenting stress nor child ASD diagnosis moderated bidirectional associations between maternal depressive symptoms and children’s behavior problems. Child behavior predicted maternal depression, but the converse was not true, regardless of parenting stress levels or child’s ASD diagnosis.

For mothers experiencing elevated parenting stress and those with children with ASD, this may help alleviate elevated feelings of guilt related to their children’s behavior problems.

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  1. Meanwhile, nearly 100% of autistic children will experience depression, anxiety, bullying, ostracization and abuse during their life.

    Yes, it’s hard for their parents. But it’s a lot harder for autistic kids to exist in a world that wasn’t made for them, surrounded by people who don’t think or feel like them, and always being told there is something wrong with them. Being punished because they can’t know rules that nobody explained. Being punished because the constant chaos and cacophony of the world is too loud.

    More support for autistic children will indirectly mean less burden on the parents. So let’s start with the people who actually need the help.

  2. I wonder how many of those depressed mums were autistic themselves (or had ADHD, with which it’s so often comorbid)? Growing up neurodiverse in a neurotypical world is super stressful even with the appropriate supports in place, and women are vastly under-diagnosed for both, often not being assessed until their child is. There is a genetic component to it, after all!

  3. It is absolutely depressing, it’s situation oriented. With my child’s(teen) behaviors, she has severe autism, it’s essential that she stays in a group home and attends her special needs school. I cannot mentally/physically take more than a 1 (rarely a 2) day pass. The chronic stress before she went to residential was impossible for anyone. She’s happy and her autism is such that she doesn’t have the concept that she has autism. I have a ptsd diagnosis and am not sure if the contestant hypervigillince is sustainable, for anyone regardless. I don’t think my diagnosis makes me less able, maybe I’m even used to it so more able but that doesn’t mean I can or should.

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