Laura Bechtiger, Dr. Annekatrin Steinhoff, Prof. Lilly Shanahan & colleagues recently published a paper on “Pathways from maternal depressive symptoms to children’s academic performance in adolescence: A 13-year prospective-longitudinal study” in the journal Child Development.
Many mothers suffer from depressive symptoms at one point or another, due to complex social and biological reasons. For example, mothers are often overburdened by the many simultaneous roles that they are expected to fulfill. Recent lockdowns and periods of homeschooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this problem.
The long-term associations of maternal depressive symptoms with children’s academic performance—and the pathways involved in these associations—are not well-understood. In their paper in Child Development, Jacobs Center PhD student Laura Bechtiger and her colleagues used data from the RIGHT Track project, which assessed maternal depressive symptoms for more than a decade.
The study revealed that maternal depressive symptoms in early childhood were associated with a chain of risk, and, ultimately, teenagers’ somewhat lower academic performance. For example, maternal depression was associated with the accumulation of parenting risk, followed by poorer child functioning, including lower adaptive school behaviors, lower behavioral regulation, and more child depressive symptoms. The link from cumulative parenting risk to children’s maladaptive school behaviors especially stood out.
Not surprisingly for a study spanning 13 years, effect sizes were relatively small in size. Thus, mothers’ depressive symptoms “do not inevitably contribute to children’s poorer academic development.” Nevertheless, the study suggests that promoting and supporting maternal well-being may result in positive, long-term ripple effects in child development, including children’s better academic competence and performance. Furthermore, fostering children's adaptive behaviors in the school context is an important building block for later academic success.