Effects of maternal childhood trauma on child emotional health: maternal mental health and frontoamygdala pathways

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2023 Mar;64(3):426-436. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13721. Epub 2022 Nov 4.


Background: Experiences of early life adversity pose significant psychological and physical health risks to exposed individuals. Emerging evidence suggests that these health risks can be transmitted across generations; however, the mechanisms underlying the intergenerational impacts of maternal early-life trauma on child health remain unknown.

Methods: The current study used a prospective longitudinal design to determine the unique and joint contributions of maternal childhood trauma (neglect and abuse) and maternal prenatal and postnatal mental health (anxiety and depressive symptoms) (N = 541) to children's resting frontoamygdala functional connectivity at 6 years (N = 89) and emotional health at 7-8 years, as indexed by parent-reported internalizing problems and child self-reported anxiety and depressive symptoms (N = 268-418).

Results: Greater maternal childhood neglect was indirectly associated with greater internalizing problems serially through a pathway of worse maternal prenatal and postnatal mental health (greater maternal anxiety and depressive symptoms). Worse maternal postnatal mental health was also uniquely associated with more negative child frontoamygdala resting-state functional connectivity, over and above maternal childhood trauma (both neglect and abuse) and prenatal mental health. More negative frontoamygdala functional connectivity was, in turn, associated with poorer child emotional health outcomes.

Conclusions: Findings from the current study provide support for the existence of intergenerational influences of parental exposure to childhood trauma on childhood risk for psychopathology in the next generation and point to the importance of maternal factors proximal to the second generation (maternal prenatal and postnatal mental health) in determining the intergenerational impact of maternal early experiences.

Keywords: Maternal childhood trauma; child emotional health; frontoamygdala functional connectivity; maternal depression and anxiety; resting-state fMRI.

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Child
  • Child Health
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mental Health*
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies