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

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.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

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

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