Panel Paper: The Impact of Maternal Depression On Child Academic and Socioemotional Outcomes

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 10:25 AM
DuPont Ballroom F (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Heather M. Dahlen, State Health Access Data Assistance Center; University of Minnesota
Objective: To test whether maternal depression affects child cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes, including the impacts of severity and duration of maternal depression. 

Data Sources/Study Setting:  9 years of panel data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative survey of students who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998.  The ECLS-K data comes from a collection of parent, teacher, and school administrator interviews as well as child assessments.  The primary sample included nearly 22,000 kindergartners and followed them through completion of eighth grade. 

Study Design:  The primary independent of interest is maternal depression, which I coded as any, moderate, or severe based on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) guidelines.  Chronicity of depression, whether or not a child whose mother was depressed in multiple periods exhibited different outcomes, was also examined.  The dependent cognitive outcomes measured included math and reading standardized scores for Kindergarten, third, and eighth grade.  Non-cognitive (socioemotional) measures included the teacher’s assessment of each child’s approach to learning, self-control, interpersonal skills, and ability to internalize or externalize problem behavior. 

Methodology:  A key contribution to the literature on maternal depression and child outcomes results from the inclusion of the bounding methodology, as it uses the difference in observed traits across children associated with mothers that have varying degrees of depression to demonstrate both the size and direction of the role of the unobserved variables affecting the results.  This bounding of the causal effects of maternal depression followed a technique established by Altonji, Elder and Taber (2005). 

Findings:  My results indicate that maternal depression negatively affects both cognitive and noncognitive child development.  Across all years in the panel, the presence of maternal depression adversely impacts at least one child outcome, and the results were often stronger for the socioemotional outcomes than test scores.  Additionally, both severity and chronicity of maternal depression matter and dampen child outcomes.  Following the bounding correction for endogeneity, my results remain significant, indicating that the effects of maternal depression on child outcomes are not driven by unobservable differences between those mothers with depression and those without. 

Implications for Practice or Policy:  Prior research has established the positive link between maternal depression and income.  My results demonstrate that there are spillover effects of maternal depression on child development.  Thus, one policy implication might be to strengthen the depression screening mechanisms for income-tested government programs and provision of depression treatment.  When mothers are mentally unhealthy, I have shown that they spend less time on child development, leading to detrimental effects for the child in school.  For the teachers of such children, spending extra time with them either assisting learning or correcting negative socioemotional behaviors reduces the total time he or she has with the rest of the class.  By increasing the treatment of depression, it is more than just the mother who is helped.

Full Paper: