Risk for psychopathology in the children of depressed mothers: a developmental model for understanding mechanisms of transmission

Psychol Rev. 1999 Jul;106(3):458-90. doi: 10.1037/0033-295x.106.3.458.


A large body of literature documents the adverse effects of maternal depression on the functioning and development of offspring. Although investigators have identified factors associated with risk for abnormal development and psychopathology in the children, little attention has been paid to the mechanisms explaining the transmission of risk from the mothers to the children. Moreover, no existing model both guides understanding of the various processes' interrelatedness and considers the role of development in explicating the manifestation of risk in the children. This article proposes a developmentally sensitive, integrative model for understanding children's risk in relation to maternal depression. Four mechanisms through which risk might be transmitted are evaluated: (a) heritability of depression; (b) innate dysfunctional neuroregulatory mechanisms; (c) exposure to negative maternal cognitions, behaviors, and affect; and (d) the stressful context of the children's lives. Three factors that might moderate this risk are considered: (a) the father's health and involvement with the child, (b) the course and timing of the mother's depression, and (c) characteristics of the child. Relevant issues are discussed, and promising directions for future research are suggested.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Child of Impaired Parents / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depressive Disorder* / genetics
  • Depressive Disorder* / physiopathology
  • Depressive Disorder* / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Models, Psychological
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology