Child Psychiatry & Human Development

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 94–106 | Cite as

Empathic Responses to Mother’s Emotions Predict Internalizing Problems in Children of Depressed Mothers

  • Erin C. Tully
  • Meghan Rose Donohue
Original Article


Recent theories posit that empathy, typically an adaptive characteristic, may be associated with internalizing problems when children are chronically exposed to mother’s depression. We tested this postulation in a sample of children (N = 82, M age = 5 years). Children witnessed their mothers express sadness, anger, and happiness during a simulated phone conversation, and researchers rated children’s negative affective empathy, positive affective empathy, and information-seeking (cognitive empathy) in response to their mother’s emotions. The chronicity of mother’s depression during the child’s lifetime moderated associations between children’s empathy and internalizing problems. As predicted, all three empathy measures were related to greater mother-rated internalizing problems in children of chronically (i.e., 2–3 years) depressed mothers. Greater positive empathy was related to lower internalizing problems in children of nondepressed mothers. Positive empathy may contribute to adaptive processes when mothers are not depressed, and positive, negative, and cognitive empathy may contribute to maladaptive processes when mothers are chronically depressed.


Empathy Internalizing problems Maternal depression Guilt Emotional development 



We would like to thank the families who participated in the study and the many research assistants who assisted with data collection and coding. Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health under award number F31 MH 072095. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors report no conflict of interest.


  1. 1.
    Zhou Q, Eisenberg N, Losoya SH, Fabes RA, Reiser M, Guthrie IK et al (2002) The relations of parental warmth and positive expressiveness to children’s empathy-related responding and social functioning: a longitudinal study. Child Dev 3:893–915CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Findlay LC, Girardi A, Coplan RJ (2006) Links between empathy, social behavior, and social understanding in early childhood. Early Child Res Q 3:347–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Denham SA, McKinley M, Couchoud EA, Holt R (1990) Emotional and behavioral predictors of preschool peer ratings. Child Dev 4:1145–1152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Spinrad TL (2009) Eisenberg N (2009) Empathy, prosocial behavior, and positive development in schools. In: Gilman R, Huebner ES, Furlong MJ (eds) Handbook of positive psychology in schools. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, New York, pp 119–129Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Goodman SH, Rouse MH, Connell AM, Broth MR, Hall CM, Heyward D (2011) Maternal depression and child psychopathology: a meta-analytic review. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 1:1–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Katz SJ, Hammen CL, Brennan PA (2013) Maternal depression and the intergenerational transmission of relational impairment. J Fam Psychol 1:86–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Goodman SH, Tully E (2008) Children of depressed mothers: implications for the etiology, treatment, and prevention of depression in children and adolescents. In: Abela JRZ, Hankin BL (eds) Handbook of depression in children and adolescents. Guilford Press, New York, pp 415–440Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Tully EC, Iacono WG, McGue M (2008) An adoption study of parental depression as an environmental liability for adolescent depression and childhood disruptive disorders. Am J Psychiatry 9:1148–1154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Tone EB, Tully EC (2014) Empathy as a ‘risky strength’: a multilevel examination of empathy and risk for internalizing disorders. Dev Psychopathol 4(Pt 2):1547–1565CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Zahn-Waxler C (2012) Van Hulle C (2012) Empathy, guilt, and depression: When caring for others becomes costly to children. In: Oakley B, Knafo A, Madhavan G et al (eds) Pathological altruism. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 321–344Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Eisenberg N, Fabes RA (1998) Prosocial development. In: Hoboken EN (ed) Handbook of child psychology, 5th edn: vol 3. Social, emotional, and personality development. Wiley, New York, pp 701–778Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Decety J (2007) A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy. In: Harmon-Jones E, Winkielman P (eds) Social neuroscience: integrating biological and psychological explanations of social behavior. Guilford Press, New York, pp 246–270Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Dadds MR, Hunter K, Hawes DJ, Frost ADJ, Vassallo S, Bunn P et al (2008) A measure of cognitive and affective empathy in children using parent ratings. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 2:111–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Knafo A, Zahn-Waxler C, Davidov M, Hulle CV, Robinson JL, Rhee SH (2009) Empathy in early childhood: genetic, environmental, and affective contributions. In: Vilarroya O, Altran S, Navarro A et al (eds) Values, empathy, and fairness across social barriers. New York Academy of Sciences, New York, pp 103–114Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Diego MA, Jones NA (2007) Neonatal antecedents for empathy. In: Farrow T, Woodruff P (eds) Empathy in mental illness. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 145–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Roth-Hanania R, Davidov M, Zahn-Waxler C (2011) Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: early signs of concern for others. Infant Behav Dev 3:447–458CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Schwenck C, Göhle B, Hauf J, Warnke A, Freitag CM, Schneider W (2014) Cognitive and emotional empathy in typically developing children: the influence of age, gender, and intelligence. Eur J Dev Psychol 1:63–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Belacchi C, Farina E (2012) Feeling and thinking of others: affective and cognitive empathy and emotion comprehension in prosocial/hostile preschoolers. Aggress Behav 2:150–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Decety J (2011) Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emot Rev 1:92–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Decety J (2010) The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Dev Neurosci 4:257–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Shamay-Tsoory SG, Aharon-Peretz J, Perry D (2009) Two systems for empathy: a double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions. Brain 3:617–627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Decety J, Michalska KJ (2010) Neurodevelopmental changes in the circuits underlying empathy and sympathy from childhood to adulthood. Dev Sci 6:886–899CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Davis MH (1983) The effects of dispositional empathy on emotional reactions and helping: a multidimensional approach. J Pers 2:167–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Ickes W, Stinson L, Bissonnette V, Garcia S (1990) Naturalistic social cognition: empathic accuracy in mixed-sex dyads. J Pers Soc Psychol 4:730–742CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Zahn-Waxler C, Cole PM, Welsh JD, Fox NA (1995) Psychophysiological correlates of empathy and prosocial behaviors in preschool children with behavior problems. Dev Psychopathol 1:27–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Liew J, Eisenberg N, Spinrad TL, Eggum ND, Haugen RG, Kupfer A et al (2011) Physiological regulation and fearfulness as predictors of young children’s empathy-related reactions. Soc Dev 1:111–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Sallquist J, Eisenberg N, Spinrad TL, Eggum ND, Gaertner BM (2009) Assessment of preschoolers’ positive empathy: concurrent and longitudinal relations with positive emotion, social competence, and sympathy. J Posit Psychol 3:223–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Eisenberg N (2006) Prosocial behavior. In: Bear GG, Minke KM (eds) Children’s needs. III: development, prevention, and intervention. National Association of School Psychologists, Washington, DC, pp 313–324Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Durand K, Gallay M, Seigneuric A, Robichon F, Baudouin J-Y (2007) The development of facial emotion recognition: the role of configural information. J Exp Child Psychol 1:14–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Calkins SD, Marcovitch S (2010) Emotion regulation and executive functioning in early development: integrated mechanisms of control supporting adaptive functioning. In: Calkins SD, Bell MA (eds) Child development at the intersection of emotion and cognition. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp 37–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Brophy-Herb HE, Schiffman RF, Bocknek EL, Dupuis SB, Fitzgerald HE, Horodynski M et al (2011) Toddlers’ social-emotional competence in the contexts of maternal emotion socialization and contingent responsiveness in a low-income sample. Soc Dev 1:73–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Cole PM, Dennis TA, Smith-Simon KE, Cohen LH (2009) Preschoolers’ emotion regulation strategy understanding: relations with emotion socialization and child self-regulation. Soc Dev 2:324–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Bengtsson H, Arvidsson Å (2011) The impact of developing social perspective-taking skills on emotionality in middle and late childhood. Soc Dev 2:353–375CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Eisenberg N (2010) Empathy-related responding: links with self-regulation, moral judgment, and moral behavior. In: Mikulincer M, Shaver PR (eds) Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: the better angels of our nature. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp 129–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Thompson RA, Meyer S (2007) Socialization of emotion regulation in the family. In: Gross JJ (ed) Handbook of emotion regulation. Guilford Press, New York, pp 249–268Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Kessler RC (2006) The epidemiology of depression among women. In: Keyes CLM, Goodman SH, Keyes CLM et al (eds) Women and depression: a handbook for the social, behavioral, and biomedical sciences. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 22–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Wilhelm K (2006) Depression: from nosology to global burden. In: Keyes CLM, Goodman SH, Keyes CLM et al (eds) Women and depression: a handbook for the social, behavioral, and biomedical sciences. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 3–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Hammen C, Brennan PA (2003) Severity, chronicity, and timing of maternal depression and risk for adolescent offspring diagnoses in a community sample. Arch Gen Psychiatry 3:253–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Brennan PA, Hammen C, Andersen MJ, Bor W, Najman JM, Williams GM (2000) Chronicity, severity, and timing of maternal depressive symptoms: relationships with child outcomes at age 5. Dev Psychol 6:759–766CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Sohr-Preston SL, Scaramella LV (2006) Implications of timing of maternal depressive symptoms for early cognitive and language development. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 1:65–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Connell AM, Goodman SH (2002) The association between psychopathology in fathers versus mothers and children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull 5:746–773CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Coyne LW, Low CM, Miller AL, Seifer R, Dickstein S (2007) Mothers’ empathic understanding of their toddlers: associations with maternal depression and sensitivity. J Child Fam Stud 4:483–497CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Hoffman C, Crnic KA, Baker JK (2006) Maternal depression and parenting: implications for children’s emergent emotion regulation and behavioral functioning. Parent Sci Pract 4:271–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    NICHD Early Child Care Research Network in the Reference List (1999) Chronicity of maternal depressive symptoms, maternal sensitivity, and child functioning at 36 months. Dev Psychol 5:1297–1310Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Denham SA, Workman E, Cole PM, Weissbrod C, Kendziora KT, Zahn-Waxler C (2000) Prediction of externalizing behavior problems from early to middle childhood: the role of parental socialization and emotion expression. Dev Psychopathol 1:23–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Hastings PD, Rubin KH, DeRose L (2005) Links among gender, inhibition, and parental socialization in the development of prosocial behavior. Merrill-Palmer Q 4:467–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Denham SA, Kochanoff AT (2002) Parental contributions to preschoolers’ understanding of emotion. Marriage Fam Rev 3–4:311–343CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Goodman SH, Gotlib IH (1999) Risk for psychopathology in the children of depressed mothers: a developmental model for understanding mechanisms of transmission. Psychol Rev 3:458–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Lovejoy M, Graczyk PA, O’Hare E, Neuman G (2000) Maternal depression and parenting behavior: a meta-analytic review. Clin Psychol Rev 5:561–592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Herba CM, Phillips M (2004) Annotation: development of facial expression recognition from childhood to adolescence: behavioural and neurological perspectives. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 7:1185–1198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Todd RM, Evans JW, Morris D, Lewis MD, Taylor MJ (2011) The changing face of emotion: age-related patterns of amygdala activation to salient faces. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 1:12–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Zahn-Waxler C, Cummings EM, McKnew DH, Radke-Yarrow M (1984) Altruism, aggression, and social interactions in young children with a manic-depressive parent. Child Dev 1:112–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Apter-Levy Y, Feldman M, Vakart A, Ebstein RP, Feldman R (2013) Impact of maternal depression across the first 6 years of life on the child’s mental health, social engagement, and empathy: the moderating role of oxytocin. Am J Psychiatry 10:1161–1168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Luby J, Belden A, Sullivan J, Hayen R, McCadney A, Spitznagel E (2009) Shame and guilt in preschool depression: evidence for elevations in self-conscious emotions in depression as early as age 3. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 9:1156–1166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Cornell AH, Frick PJ (2007) The moderating effects of parenting styles in the association between behavioral inhibition and parent-reported guilt and empathy in preschool children. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 3:305–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. 56.
    Davies PT, Cummings EM, Winter MA (2004) Pathways between profiles of family functioning, child security in the interparental subsystem, and child psychological problems. Dev Psychopathol 3:525–550Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Eisenberg N, Fabes RA, Bustamante D, Mathy RM, Miller PA, Lindholm E (1988) Differentiation of vicariously induced emotional reactions in children. Dev Psychol 2:237–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 58.
    Hallgren KA (2012) Computing inter-rater reliability for observational data: an overview and tutorial. Tutorials in Quantitative Methods for Psychology 1:23–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 59.
    First MB, Spitzer RL, Gibbon M, Williams JBW (2002) Structured clinical interview for dsm-iv-tr axis i disorders, research version, non-patient edition (scid-i/np). Biometrics Research, New York State Psychiatric Institute, NewGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Achenbach TM (1991) Manual for the child behavior checklist/4-18 and 1991 profile. Author, Burlington 1991 Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Tabachnick BG, Fidell LS (2013) Using multivariate statistics, 6th edn. Pearson, BostonGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Tully EC, Donohue MR, Garcia SE (2015) Children’s empathy responses and their understanding of mother’s emotions. Cogn Emot 1:118–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. 63.
    Eisenberg N (2008) Eggum ND (2008) Empathy-related and prosocial responding: Conceptions and correlates during development. In: Sullivan BA, Snyder M, Sullivan JL (eds) Cooperation: the political psychology of effective human interaction. Blackwell, Malden, pp 53–74Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Brock RL, Kochanska G (2015) Decline in the quality of family relationships predicts escalation in children’s internalizing symptoms from middle to late childhood. J Abnorm Child Psychol 13:1295–1308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. 65.
    Hughes C, White A, Sharpen J, Dunn J (2000) Antisocial, angry, and unsympathetic: ‘hard-to-manage’ preschoolers’ peer problems and possible cognitive influences. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2:169–179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. 66.
    Donatelli J-AL, Bybee JA, Buka SL (2007) What do mothers make adolescents feel guilty about? Incidents, reactions, and relation to depression. J Child Fam Stud 6:859–875CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. 67.
    Z-b Liang, G-z Zhang, H-c Chen (2009) Relation of children’s temperament and parenting style with children’s conscience. Chin J Clin Psychol 1:90–92Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Zahn-Waxler C (1990) Kochanska G (1990) The origins of guilt. In: Thompson RA (ed) Nebraska symposium on motivation, 1988: socioemotional development. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, pp 183–258Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Koretz D, Merikangas KR et al (2003) The epidemiology of major depressive disorder: results from the national comorbidity survey replication (ncs-r). JAMA 23:3095–3105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. 70.
    Horwitz SM, Briggs-Gowan MJ, Storfer-Isser A, Carter AS, Horwitz SM, Briggs-Gowan MJ et al (2007) Prevalence, correlates, and persistence of maternal depression. J Womens Health 5:678–691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. 71.
    McLennan JD, Kotelchuck M, Cho H (2001) Prevalence, persistence, and correlates of depressive symptoms in a national sample of mothers of toddlers. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 11:1316–1323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. 72.
    Najman JM, Williams GM, Nikles J, Spence S, Bor W, O’Callaghan M et al (2000) Mothers’ mental illness and child behavior problems: cause–effect association or observation bias? J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 5:592–602CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. 73.
    Richters JE (1992) Depressed mothers as informants about their children: a critical review of the evidence for distortion. Psychol Bull 3:485–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. 74.
    Weissman MM, Wickramaratne P, Warner V, John K (1987) Assessing psychiatric disorders in children: discrepancies between mothers’ and children’s reports. Arch Gen Psychiatry 8:747–753CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. 75.
    Conrad M, Hammen C (1989) Role of maternal depression in perceptions of child maladjustment. J Consult Clin Psychol 5:663–667CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA

Personalised recommendations