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Kids Who Blame Themselves for Mom’s Sadness More Likely to Face Depression, Anxiety

Children who feel a sense of responsibility for their mother’s sadness or depression are more likely to face depression and anxiety themselves, according to a new study led by researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas.

The study results are published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

“Although mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms face increased risk that their children will also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, our study showed that this was not the case for all children,” said SMU family psychologist and lead author Dr. Chrystyna Kouros.

“Rather, it was those children who felt they were to blame for their mother’s sadness or depression … that had higher levels of internalizing symptoms.”

Based on the new findings, Kouros says it’s extremely important that parents and others who regularly interact with children pay close attention to the kinds of remarks that kids make about their mom’s mental health symptoms and to intervene if children incorrectly think that it’s their fault their mom is feeling depressed.

The research is based on surveys completed by 129 mothers and their children. The participants were recruited from the Dallas-Fort Worth community through schools, flyers and online advertisements. On average, children included in the study were 13 years old.

The moms in the study were asked to agree or disagree with 20 statements such as “I could not shake off the blues” and “I lost interest in my usual activities” to assess if they had depressive symptoms, even if they had not been formally diagnosed with depression. Nearly 12 percent of the women who took the survey were found to have potentially clinical levels of depressive symptoms.

The moms were also asked to report if they thought their kids had symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Meanwhile, the children were asked to complete a total of four surveys to see if they were dealing with any symptoms of anxiety or depression and whether they blamed themselves for any signs of depression in their mothers.

Kouros says there are two likely explanations for the association between mothers’ depressive symptoms and kids’ own mental health issues.

“If children blame themselves for their mothers’ depressive symptoms, then they may be more likely to brood about their mother’s symptoms. And we know from an extensive body of research that rumination over stressors, especially ones that are uncontrollable, is linked with depression and anxiety,” said Kouros.

“Also, if children feel personally responsible for their mothers’ symptoms, they may try to ‘make it better’ and use ineffective coping strategies. This could lead to a sense of helplessness, failure, and low self-worth in the child, since ultimately the child was misattributing the cause of their mothers’ depressive symptoms.”

Kids who feel a strong sense of responsibility for their mother’s mental health are likely to benefit from therapies and interventions that target negative thoughts, said Kouros, SMU associate professor of psychology.

Further research is needed to determine whether depressed dads have the same effect on their kids, Kouros said.

Sharyl E. Wee and Chelsea N. Carson, graduate students at SMU, and Dr. Naomi Ekas, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Christian University, also contributed to the study.

Source: Southern Methodist University


Kids Who Blame Themselves for Mom’s Sadness More Likely to Face Depression, Anxiety

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Kids Who Blame Themselves for Mom’s Sadness More Likely to Face Depression, Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Mar 2020 (Originally: 12 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Mar 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.