Maternal psychological distress and child decision-making


There is much research to suggest that maternal psychological distress is associated with many adverse outcomes in children. This study examined, for the first time, if it is related to children's affective decision-making.

Using data from 12,080 families of the Millennium Cohort Study, we modelled the effect of trajectories of maternal psychological distress in early-to-middle childhood (3–11 years) on child affective decision-making, measured with a gambling task at age 11.

Latent class analysis showed four longitudinal types of maternal psychological distress (chronically high, consistently low, moderate-accelerating and moderate-decelerating). Maternal distress typology predicted decision-making but only in girls. Specifically, compared to girls growing up in families with never-distressed mothers, those exposed to chronically high maternal psychological distress showed more risk-taking, bet more and exhibited poorer risk-adjustment, even after correction for confounding. Most of these effects on girls’ decision-making were not robust to additional controls for concurrent internalising and externalising problems, but chronically high maternal psychological distress was associated positively with risk-taking even after this adjustment. Importantly, this association was similar for those who had reached puberty and those who had not.

Given the study design, causality cannot be inferred. Therefore, we cannot propose that treating chronic maternal psychological distress will reduce decision-making pathology in young females.

Our study suggests that young daughters of chronically distressed mothers tend to be particularly reckless decision-makers.

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