Child Psychiatry & Human Development

, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 52–64 | Cite as

Maternal Distress Influences Young Children’s Family Representations Through Maternal View of Child Behavior and Parent–Child Interactions

  • Yeon Soo Yoo
  • Jill Popp
  • JoAnn Robinson
Original Article


Distress of a parent is a key influence on the quality of the child’s experience in the family. We hypothesized that maternal distress would spill over into more negative views of their children’s behaviors and less emotional availability in their relationships. Further, we investigated whether these cumulative experiences contributed to children’s emerging narratives about mothers and family life. In this longitudinal study, mothers of young twin children reported their distress on three occasions in relation to: self, the marital relationship, and the family climate. Mothers also reported on their children’s externalizing behavior problems. Mother–child interaction was observed focusing on maternal sensitivity and child responsivity. Children responded to story stem beginnings about challenging situations in the family and their narratives were scored for family conflict and cohesion themes. Actor–partner interdependence model methods of dyadic data analysis accounted for the inclusion of both twins in the analysis. Results from structural equation models supported the hypothesized cumulative experience of maternal distress on children’s family life representations for both family conflict and family cohesion. A family environment in which children are exposed to persistent maternal distress early in life may have cumulative effects, influencing how mothers interact with and view their children’s behavior at later developmental stages. Moreover, exposure to repeated distress for longer periods of time may contribute to an intergenerational continuity of distress for the child that may become rooted in negative affective bias in their own view of family relationships.


Maternal distress Behavioral problems Interaction quality Child narratives Structural equation model 



This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute for Mental Health grants HD010333 and HD050346.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human Development and Family StudiesUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA
  2. 2.Connecticut Children’s Medical CenterHartfordUSA

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