Mothers' mental illness and child behavior problems: cause-effect association or observation bias?

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2000 May;39(5):592-602. doi: 10.1097/00004583-200005000-00013.


Objective: A number of studies have consistently found that a mother's mental health (particularly her level of depression) is a strong predictor of mental health problems experienced by her child(ren). However, the validity of this finding is in doubt because the majority of these studies have relied on maternal reports as indicators of children's behavior.

Method: This prospective, longitudinal study examines data on the mental health of the mother from prior to the birth of her child to when the child reaches 14 years of age. Child behavior is measured at 14 years of age using reports from mother and child. Mother and child responses are compared to provide an indication of the possible magnitude of maternal observation bias in the reporting of child behavior problems.

Results: Anxious and/or depressed mothers tend to report more cases of child behavior problems than do their mentally healthy counterparts or children themselves. Differences between mothers and youths in reporting behavior problems appear to be related to the mothers' mental health.

Conclusions: Current maternal mental health impairment appears to have a substantial effect on the reporting of child behavior problems by the mother, thereby raising questions about the validity of reports of child behavior by persons who are currently emotionally distressed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety / diagnosis*
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Child Behavior Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Child Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / diagnosis*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity