Thesis

Maternal Depressive Symptoms, Acculturative Stress, and the Development of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Preschool-age Children

High levels of emotional and behavioral problems have been reported in preschool-aged Mexican-American children, the fastest growing minority population in the US. Preschool-aged children that experience emotional and behavioral problems are more likely to encounter difficulties at home and in school throughout development than children not experiencing these problems. Research suggests early exposure to maternal stress and depression in utero is associated with increased risk for emotional and behavioral problems in young children. This may be particularly salient in vulnerable populations that experience high levels of stressors and maternal depression such as women of Mexican descent. These women not only experience daily life stressors but sociocultural stressors as well, including acculturative stress (i.e., stress associated with the acculturative process), which may affect the developing fetus. Prenatal programming of postnatal offspring psychopathology is poorly understood, especially in the Mexican population. The current study used the fetal programming hypothesis, which states that harmful effects during the prenatal period can affect the developing fetus and have long-term consequences for child development. Preschool age is a particularly important time to assess and treat emotional and behavioral difficulties due to behavioral and neurodevelopmental plasticity at this time. It was hypothesized that 1) prenatal maternal depressive symptoms and acculturative stress would each be associated with depressive symptoms in preschool-aged children, 2) prenatal maternal depressive symptoms and acculturative stress would each be associated with anxiety symptoms in preschool-aged children, 3) prenatal maternal depressive symptoms would moderate the relationship between prenatal maternal acculturative stress and depressive symptoms in preschool-aged children, and 4) prenatal maternal depressive symptoms would moderate the relationship between prenatal maternal acculturative stress and anxiety symptoms in preschool-aged children. Separate linear regressions suggest that fetal exposure to prenatal maternal depressive symptoms, but not acculturative stress, was associated with greater depressive symptoms in preschool-aged children in one of two measures of childhood depression. However, the relationship between prenatal maternal depression and child depressive symptoms was no longer significant once postpartum depression was controlled. There was no relationship between prenatal maternal depression, prenatal maternal acculturative, and child anxiety. A moderation analysis showed that prenatal maternal acculturative stress may be indirectly associated with the development of child depressive symptoms via maternal depression, such that children exposed to high levels of maternal acculturative stress and low levels of maternal depression during pregnancy had lower levels of depressive symptoms. The narrow range of child depression scores may have limited the ability of the data to adequately test the hypotheses, but the data suggest that there is unlikely to be a simple relationship between prenatal factors such as maternal depressive symptoms and acculturative stress and the development of depressive symptoms in preschool-aged Mexican-American children, but that early life factors likely play a role.

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