Risk for development of internalizing symptoms in young children: Roles of child autonomic reactivity and exposure to maternal depression and anxiety in early life

Anne Elizabeth Sidamon-Eristoff, BA

Boston Children’s Hospital – Research Assistant
Sidamon_Eristoff_AnneElizabeth poster

Scientific Abstract

Background. The intergenerational transmission of internalizing disorders is likely explained by a complex set of genetic and environmental conditions and their interactions within and across time. One possible mechanism involves programming of the child’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) by maternal behaviors in infancy and early childhood. Maternal depression and anxiety, via increased irritable or withdrawn caregiving behaviors, may heighten child ANS reactivity, which has been linked with internalizing disorders in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Additionally, heightened child ANS reactivity may sensitize a child to their environment, such that children with heightened reactivity may be particularly vulnerable to the development of emotional or behavioral problems in the context of exposure to maternal psychopathology.

Method. In a prospective longitudinal study of mother-child dyads (N=447), we examined relations among maternal internalizing symptoms (depression, anxiety) when the children were infants and age 5 years, child ANS reactivity at age 3 years, and child internalizing as well as externalizing symptoms at age 5 years. Analyses tested the potential roles of child ANS reactivity as a mediator and as a moderator of associations between maternal and child symptoms.

Results. Higher child ANS reactivity at age 3 years was related to higher child internalizing symptoms at age 5 years only in children exposed to higher levels of maternal depression or anxiety symptoms at age 5 years (moderation effect). These effects were not observed for child externalizing symptoms, suggesting that this developmental process may be unique to internalizing symptom formation. Child ANS reactivity did not mediate relations between maternal depressive or anxiety symptoms in infancy and child internalizing or externalizing symptoms at age 5 years.

Conclusions. Heightened ANS reactivity appears to confer biological sensitivity to context. When coupled with exposure to elevated maternal depression or anxiety symptoms, it may contribute to the development of internalizing psychopathology in childhood.   

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research Areas

Authors

Kelsey M. Quigley, PhD, Anne Elizabeth Sidamon-Eristoff, Carter R. Petty, Charles A. Nelson, PhD, Michelle Bosquet Enlow, PhD

Principal Investigator

Michelle Bosquet Enlow, PhD