Maternal Depression and Children's Theory of Mind Understanding
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This study examined group differences in theory of mind understanding of children with versus without a maternal history of major depressive disorder (MDD) and potential mechanisms underlying these differences, in particular, maternal mental state talk and physical touch. Children of depressed mothers have been shown to experience a number of negative outcomes; however, little is known about the effects of maternal MDD on children’s theory of mind understanding. In this study, children with (n= 19) and without (n= 44) a maternal history of MDD were administered a battery of four false belief tasks and a theory of mind scale. Children with a maternal history of MDD performed significantly poorer on the false belief battery compared to children without a maternal history of MDD. Regardless of diagnostic status, less maternal mental state talk was also related to poorer child performance on the false belief battery. Similarly, children experiencing little or moderate physical touch performed significantly poorer on the false belief battery compared to those receiving high physical touch. A lack of maternal vocal inflection was significantly related to less mother-child physical touch. The results remained while controlling for child language ability. Finally, child executive functioning did not significantly moderate relations between either maternal mental state talk or physical touch, and child false belief performance. Results are discussed in light of specific vulnerabilities to depression, with possible alternative explanations and directions for future research presented.