Using an adoption-biological family design to examine associations between maternal trauma, maternal depressive symptoms, and child internalizing and externalizing behaviors

Dev Psychopathol. 2017 Dec;29(5):1707-1720. doi: 10.1017/S0954579417001341.


Maternal trauma is a complex risk factor that has been linked to adverse child outcomes, yet the mechanisms underlying this association are not well understood. This study, which included adoptive and biological families, examined the heritable and environmental mechanisms by which maternal trauma and associated depressive symptoms are linked to child internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Path analyses were used to analyze data from 541 adoptive mother-adopted child (AM-AC) dyads and 126 biological mother-biological child (BM-BC) dyads; the two family types were linked through the same biological mother. Rearing mother's trauma was associated with child internalizing and externalizing behaviors in AM-AC and BM-BC dyads, and this association was mediated by rearing mothers' depressive symptoms, with the exception of biological child externalizing behavior, for which biological mother trauma had a direct influence only. Significant associations between maternal trauma and child behavior in dyads that share only environment (i.e., AM-AC dyads) suggest an environmental mechanism of influence for maternal trauma. Significant associations were also observed between maternal depressive symptoms and child internalizing and externalizing behavior in dyads that were only genetically related, with no shared environment (i.e., BM-AC dyads), suggesting a heritable pathway of influence via maternal depressive symptoms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adoption / psychology*
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Child Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Child of Impaired Parents / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult