Maternal depression and trajectories of child internalizing and externalizing problems: the roles of child decision making and working memory.


BACKGROUND: Maternal depression may affect the emotional/behavioural outcomes of children with normal neurocognitive functioning less severely than it does those without. To guide prevention and intervention efforts, research must specify which aspects of a child’s cognitive functioning both moderate the effect of maternal depression and are amenable to change. Working memory and decision making may be amenable to change and are so far unexplored as moderators of this effect. METHOD: Our sample was 17 160 Millennium Cohort Study children. We analysed trajectories of externalizing (conduct and hyperactivity) and internalizing (emotional and peer) problems, measured with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire at the ages 3, 5, 7 and 11 years, using growth curve models. We characterized maternal depression, also time-varying at these ages, by a high score on the K6. Working memory was measured with the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery Spatial Working Memory Task, and decision making (risk taking and quality of decision making) with the Cambridge Gambling Task, both at age 11 years. RESULTS: Maternal depression predicted both the level and the growth of problems. Risk taking and poor-quality decision making were related positively to externalizing and non-significantly to internalizing problems. Poor working memory was related to both problem types. Neither decision making nor working memory explained the effect of maternal depression on child internalizing/externalizing problems. Importantly, risk taking amplified the effect of maternal depression on internalizing problems, and poor working memory that on internalizing and conduct problems. CONCLUSIONS: Impaired decision making and working memory in children amplify the adverse effect of maternal depression on, particularly, internalizing problems.