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Using an adoption–biological family design to examine associations between maternal trauma, maternal depressive symptoms, and child internalizing and externalizing behaviors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 November 2017

Aleksandria Perez Grabow
University of Oregon
Atika Khurana
University of Oregon
Misaki N. Natsuaki
University of California, Riverside
Jenae M. Neiderhiser
Pennsylvania State University
Gordon T. Harold
University of Sussex University of Dublin
Daniel S. Shaw
University of Pittsburgh
Jody M. Ganiban
George Washington University
David Reiss
Yale Child Study Center
Leslie D. Leve*
University of Oregon
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Leslie D. Leve, Prevention Science Institute, 6217, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403; E-mail:


Maternal trauma is a complex risk factor that has been linked to adverse child outcomes, yet the mechanisms underlying this association are not well understood. This study, which included adoptive and biological families, examined the heritable and environmental mechanisms by which maternal trauma and associated depressive symptoms are linked to child internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Path analyses were used to analyze data from 541 adoptive mother–adopted child (AM–AC) dyads and 126 biological mother–biological child (BM–BC) dyads; the two family types were linked through the same biological mother. Rearing mother's trauma was associated with child internalizing and externalizing behaviors in AM–AC and BM–BC dyads, and this association was mediated by rearing mothers’ depressive symptoms, with the exception of biological child externalizing behavior, for which biological mother trauma had a direct influence only. Significant associations between maternal trauma and child behavior in dyads that share only environment (i.e., AM–AC dyads) suggest an environmental mechanism of influence for maternal trauma. Significant associations were also observed between maternal depressive symptoms and child internalizing and externalizing behavior in dyads that were only genetically related, with no shared environment (i.e., BM–AC dyads), suggesting a heritable pathway of influence via maternal depressive symptoms.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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This project was supported by Grants R01 and R56 HD042608 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development and NIDA; NIH, US PHS; R01 DA020585 from NIDA, NIMH, and OBSSR; NIH, US PHS; R01 MH092118 from NIMH; and R01 DA035062 from NIDA. Additional support for the writing of this report was provided by P50 DA035763, NIDA, US PHS. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development or the National Institutes of Health. We thank the birth parents and adoptive families who participated in this study and the adoption agencies who helped with the recruitment of study participants. We also thank the Early Growth and Development Study team for their work with participants, especially the contributions of data manager Sally Guyer. We gratefully acknowledge Rand Conger and Laura Scaramella who contributed to the larger study.


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