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Maternal Depression May Affect How Children Respond to Criticism

Criticism is especially difficult for children whose mothers have depression.

Key points

  • Children of depressed mothers tend to respond more negatively to criticism than children of non-depressed mothers.
  • Criticism from all family members, including mothers, fathers, and siblings, may have a similar aversive impact.
  • Praise seems to benefit all children, regardless of maternal depression history.

From home to school, children are constantly receiving both criticism and praise from those around them. However, their reactions to the feedback they receive vary. It is well-established that children of mothers who experienced depression during the child’s lifetime are at high risk of developing depression themselves. Previous research suggests this increased risk may be the result of increased sensitivity to feedback, especially from their mothers (Mellick et al., 2015).

 Julia M Cameron/Pexels
Source: Source: Julia M Cameron/Pexels

Most studies on maternal depression and the child's reaction to feedback focused only on negative feedback—criticism—and almost exclusively on criticism from the mother. However, positive feedback and the way children react to it can also significantly influence their mental health (Alto et al., 2018).

Additionally, though mothers are undoubtedly important figures in their child’s lives, they are by no means the only ones that make a difference. In fact, there’s substantial research showing that relationships with fathers, siblings, and friends all contribute to children’s mental health (Finan et al., 2018).

A recent study from our lab, led by Dr. Reuma Gadassi-Polack (2021) investigates how criticism and praise, from mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends may be related to children’s depression. In addition, the research sought out to discover if children of depressed mothers may be more sensitive to criticism and less sensitive to praise compared to children of non-depressed mothers.

The researchers studied 72 children and adolescents (8-15 years old) who either had a mother with depression history or not. Every day for 21 days, youths completed a short questionnaire where they reported their depressive symptoms and whether they received criticism and/or praise from their mother, father, siblings, and friends.

Criticism Harms Children of Mothers with Depression, Praise Benefits All

Source: Source: peoplecreations/Freepik

While all youths in the study showed more symptoms of depression when they were criticized by a family member, this effect was much stronger for youths with depressed mothers. These children with depressed mothers were also the only ones to have increases in depression when they were criticized by their friends.

A more optimistic finding was that praise from mothers or fathers was associated with decreased depressive symptoms for all youths in the study, with or without maternal depression history. In other words, while criticism mostly hurts children of depressed mothers, praise (from parents) benefits everyone.

While mothers certainly have a significant impact on their children’s mental health, this study emphasizes that feedback from fathers and siblings also matter. Criticism from any family member—mothers, fathers, and siblings—may increase depression symptoms in children. On the other hand, praise from mothers and fathers decreases depression symptoms.

The Right Way to Give Feedback

Oftentimes, people give criticism with the intention of helping children improve, but it may have more negative consequences, especially when it’s repeated over time. Findings from Gadassi-Polack et al. (2021) suggest that increased reactivity to criticism may exacerbate depressive symptoms and may be a risk factor for depression. Identifying criticism as a possible risk factor allows us to start understanding what the best interventions are for these children at risk of depression due to having a depressed mother.

 August de Richelieu /Pexels
Source: Source: August de Richelieu /Pexels

This study suggests some early interventions that may benefit these at-risk children. Compared to others, these children with depressed mothers may just have a harder time responding to criticism in a constructive way since they may have more negative emotions tied to criticism. Instead of withholding criticism altogether, teaching these children how to reframe criticism and improve the way they regulate their negative emotions related to receiving criticism can help counteract its negative effect on them. Ultimately, learning how to deal with criticism is beneficial to everyone—not only children at risk of depression. With that said, family members should also consider giving more praise to children in addition to helping them react to criticism.

With these findings in mind, it is important to think about how you are giving feedback to others, especially children, and be attentive to how they are reacting to it. Your words may have more of a lasting impact than you realize at the moment, and your child may greatly benefit from learning how to accept criticism—surely this is an important life skill for all of us. Another message from this study is that taking the time to praise your child or sibling may go a long way in improving their mental health wellbeing.

Doris Chen (Yale undergraduate) and Reuma Gadassi Polack (postdoctoral fellow at Yale) contributed to the writing of this post.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock


Alto, M., Handley, E., Rogosch, F., Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. (2018). Maternal relationship quality and peer social acceptance as media- tors between child maltreatment and adolescent depressive symptoms: Gender differences. Journal of Adolescence, 63, 19–28.

Finan, L. J., Ohannessian, C. M., & Gordon, M. S. (2018). Trajectories of depressive symptoms from adolescence to emerging adulthood: The influence of parents, peers, and siblings. Developmental Psychology, 54, 1555.

Gadassi-Polack, R., Chertkof, J., Kober, H., & Joormann, J. (2021). Maternal Depression History Moderates the Association Between Criticism (but not Praise) and Depressive Symptoms in Youth. Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 1-14.

Goodman, S. H., Rouse, M. H., Connell, A. M., Broth, M. R., Hall, C. M., & Heyward, D. (2011). Maternal depression and child psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14, 1–27.

Mellick, W., Kalpakci, A., & Sharp, C. (2015). Current maternal depression moderates the relation between critical expressed emotion in mothers and depressive symptoms in their adolescent daughters. Psychiatry Research, 227, 224–229.

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