Empathic Responses to Mother’s Emotions Predict Internalizing Problems in Children of Depressed Mothers

Erin C. Tully, Meghan Rose Donohue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Recent theories posit that empathy, typically an adaptive characteristic, may be associated with internalizing problems when children are chronically exposed to mother’s depression. We tested this postulation in a sample of children (N = 82, Mage = 5 years). Children witnessed their mothers express sadness, anger, and happiness during a simulated phone conversation, and researchers rated children’s negative affective empathy, positive affective empathy, and information-seeking (cognitive empathy) in response to their mother’s emotions. The chronicity of mother’s depression during the child’s lifetime moderated associations between children’s empathy and internalizing problems. As predicted, all three empathy measures were related to greater mother-rated internalizing problems in children of chronically (i.e., 2–3 years) depressed mothers. Greater positive empathy was related to lower internalizing problems in children of nondepressed mothers. Positive empathy may contribute to adaptive processes when mothers are not depressed, and positive, negative, and cognitive empathy may contribute to maladaptive processes when mothers are chronically depressed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)94-106
Number of pages13
JournalChild Psychiatry and Human Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017


  • Emotional development
  • Empathy
  • Guilt
  • Internalizing problems
  • Maternal depression


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