Maternal depression, maternal stress and children's behavioral outcomes among families in the national Early Head Start program

Elizabeth D Bernstein, Pace University


This doctoral project examines the relationships between cumulative risk, maternal mental health problems, and child socioemotional outcomes, using data from approximately 3,000 families who participated in a nationwide evaluation of Early Head Start. All outcome data were collected when the children were 36 months old. Measures included the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale-Short Form (CESD-SF), Parenting Stress Index-Short Form (PSI-SF), Child Behavior Checklist for ages 1½--5 (CBCL 1½--5), and Behavior Rating Scale from the Bayley Scales of Infant Development-Second Edition (BRS, BSID-II). Cumulative risk is defined as the number of socioeconomic risks characterizing each family, including receipt of public assistance, mother's occupational status, educational level, and adolescent or single motherhood. The maternal mental health problems included depression and parenting stress (parental distress and parent-child dysfunctional interaction). Child outcomes included both negative (aggression) and positive (emotional regulation and orientation/engagement) aspects of socioemotional development. It was hypothesized that risk would affect outcomes both directly and indirectly (via maternal mental health). Correlations and multiple regressions were performed to examine these relationships. The theoretical model was generally supported, although many of the relationships were weak: for example, correlations between cumulative risk and maternal depression, maternal parenting stress, and child outcomes tended to be significant but small. Correlations using specific individual risk factors were more revealing. Furthermore, in many cases individual risk factors were better predictors of outcomes than cumulative risk as a whole, but the best predictors tended to be maternal mental health variables. The best fitting regression model of all combined all of the risk and maternal mental health variables, to predict almost 23% of children's aggression. There were some unexpected findings for predicting positive child outcomes, especially orientation/engagement. Also, specific risk and maternal mental health factors variously predicted child outcomes to differing degrees: for example, public assistance, maternal depression, and parent-child dysfunctional interaction were the significant predictors of emotional regulation, while mother's education, public assistance, adolescent motherhood, and parental distress predicted orientation/engagement. Further research is indicated to refine understanding of the relationships tested, and to examine them in the context of Rafferty's (2005) larger theoretical model.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Preschool education

Recommended Citation

Bernstein, Elizabeth D, "Maternal depression, maternal stress and children's behavioral outcomes among families in the national Early Head Start program" (2006). ETD Collection for Pace University. AAI3212689.



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