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Pathways From Maternal and Paternal Depressive Symptoms to Youth Symptomatology: Explanatory Mechanisms and Contextual Influences From Adolescence to Young Adulthood


A robust body of literature has documented positive associations between parents’ psychopathology and children’s adjustment difficulties. However, prior studies have focused on mothers’ psychopathology, using cross-sectional designs, with predominantly clinical and European American samples of young children. The current investigation addressed these gaps in the literature by evaluating concurrent and prospective associations of mothers’ and fathers’ depressive symptoms with youths’ internalizing and externalizing symptomatology from early adolescence to young adulthood in a community sample of European American and Mexican American families.

Drawing on five waves of longitudinal data from 392 families (52% female; Mage_W1 = 12.89, SD = .48; Mage_W5 = 21.95, SD = .77; 199 European American and 193 Mexican American families; 217 intact and 175 stepfather families), the first aim of this study was to document the unique contributions of both mothers’ and fathers’ depressive symptoms to youths’ symptomatology, as well as the transactional effects of youths' symptomatology on mothers’ and fathers’ depressive symptoms, from ages 12 to 22. The second aim of this study was to evaluate the explanatory role of theoretically-specified mediating mechanisms underlying these effects (i.e., co-parent’s depressive symptoms, parental acceptance, parental rejection, and perceived mattering to each parent). In both set of analyses, the obtained relations were tested across groups defined by family ethnicity (i.e., European American and Mexican American), family structure (i.e., intact and stepfather families), and youth gender.

After employing a novel technique to harmonize the data across waves, a series of trait and time-varying cross-lagged models evaluated between- and within-person differences in mothers’ and fathers’ depressive symptoms, youths’ symptomatology, and transactional relations among these three reporters across time. Overall, the findings suggested that both mothers’ and fathers’ between- and within-person differences in depressive symptoms were associated with youths’ internalizing and externalizing symptoms. However, whereas each parent’s depressive symptoms uniquely contributed to youths’ internalizing symptoms, only mothers’ depressive symptoms influenced youths’ externalizing symptoms. Although reciprocal effects of youths’ internalizing symptoms on parents’ depressive symptoms were not significant, youths’ externalizing symptoms predicted changes in mothers’ depressive symptoms over time. Moderation analyses revealed distinct transactional patterns by family ethnicity and child gender, but not by family structure.

A series of mediation analyses revealed that, although parents’ rejecting behavior and youths’ perceptions of mattering to each parent were related to youths' symptomatology, there were only two significant indirect effects, both of which accounted for the influence of fathers’ depressive symptoms on youths’ symptomatology. Specifically, fathers’ depressive symptoms contributed to higher rates of youths’ internalizing and externalizing symptoms via higher levels of mothers’ depressive symptoms and lower levels of fathers’ acceptance of the child, respectively. Moderation analyses revealed that the indirect effect from fathers’ depressive symptoms to youths’ internalizing symptoms via mothers’ depressive symptoms was significant among European American families, but not among Mexican American families. Together, these analyses revealed dynamic transactions among family members’ symptomatology that point to opportune times and targets for intervention and prevention efforts aimed at mitigating the negative impact of parents’ depressive symptoms on youths’ adjustment.

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