The Interplay between Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Marital Distress in the Prediction of Adolescent Adjustment

By Davies, Patrick T.; Dumenci, Levent et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Interplay between Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Marital Distress in the Prediction of Adolescent Adjustment


Davies, Patrick T., Dumenci, Levent, Windle, Michael, Journal of Marriage and Family


We examine the nature and directionality of paths among maternal depressive symptoms, marital distress, and adolescent depressive and externalizing symptoms in 506 adolescent-mother dyads. Structural equation models, used with data from three measurements, were conducted to examine the specificity of marital distress and maternal depressive symptoms as potential mediators of one another in the prediction of adolescent adjustment. Findings from static and dynamic, autoregressive models supported pathways whereby marital distress mediated effects of maternal depressive symptoms on adolescent externalizing symptoms and maternal depressive symptomatology mediated effects of marital distress on adolescent depressive symptoms.

Key Words: adolescent adjustment, family discord, interparental distress, maternal depression.

Children and adolescents who are exposed to high levels of maternal depressive symptoms exhibit increased risk for a wide range of psychological problems (e.g., Downey & Coyne, 1990). Family socialization models have stressed that incorporating marital distress into the study of maternal depressive symptoms may help to clarify more precisely how and why mothers' depressive symptoms increase children's vulnerability (Coyne, Downey, & Boergers, 1992; Cummings & Davies, 1994b, in press). Empirical bases for these conceptualizations are rooted in consistent reports of interrelations among marital quality, maternal depressive symptoms, and child adjustment. Specifically, maternal depressive symptomatology has been shown to covary to a moderate degree with marital distress (Beach & Nelson, 1990). Exposure to mothers' depressive symptoms and marital distress, in turn, has forecasted a similar range of child problems, encompassing both depressive symptoms and externalizing problems in the form of aggression, delinquency, and other types of misconduct (Cummings & Davies, 1994a). However, advances in the study of marital distress and maternal depression most commonly have occurred independently of one another. As a result, it is equally plausible to interchange maternal depressive symptoms and marital quality in numerous conceptual roles as mediators of one another; distal, indirect predictors; or independent predictors (e.g., Downey & Coyne, 1990; Fincham, 1998). Thus, precisely mapping the etiological pathways among maternal depressive symptoms, marital distress, and child maladjustment remains a critical, unresolved task.

Downey and Coyne (1990) distilled two primary types of models for the joint influence of maternal depressive symptoms and marital distress. In the first type of model, the marital-distress-asmediator model, marital distress was hypothesized to be a mediator of the risk posed by maternal depressive symptoms to children's psychological maladjustment. Maternal depressive symptoms are conceptualized as indirectly influencing children's adjustment problems by increasing exposure to marital distress. In contrast, in the second type of model, the maternal-depression-as-mediator model, maternal depressive symptomatology was depicted as a mediator of marital distress. Under these conditions, mothers' marital distress leads to children's adjustment problems primarily by increasing their exposure to maternal depressive symptoms. Downey and Coyne hypothesize that the efficacy of these two models varies systematically across specific forms of children's psychological maladjustment. Higher levels of externalizing problems exhibited by children of depressed mothers were posited as developing out of their exposure to concurrent marital distress. By contrast, the greater vulnerability of children in maritally distressed homes to experiencing depressive symptoms was thought to result, in part, from exposure to concurrent depressive symptoms. Thus, marital distress is conceptualized as mediating the influence of maternal depressive symptoms only in the prediction of child externalizing symptoms (marital distress as mediator), whereas maternal depressive symptoms are proffered to be proximate mediators of the effects of marital distress on child depressive symptoms (maternal depression as mediator). …

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