Despite growing recognition that unfortunately common maternal stress exposures in childhood and pregnancy may have intergenerational impacts on children’s psychiatric health, studies rarely take a life course approach. With child psychopathology on the rise, the identification of modifiable risk factors is needed to promote maternal and child well-being. In this study, we examined associations of maternal exposure to childhood traumatic events (CTE) and pregnancy stressful life events (PSLE) with child mental health problems in a large, sociodemographically diverse sample.
Participants were mother–child dyads in the ECHO-PATHWAYS consortium’s harmonized data across three U.S. pregnancy cohorts. Women completed questionnaires regarding their own exposure to CTE and PSLE, and their 4–6-year-old child’s mental health problems using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Regression analyses estimated associations between stressors and child total behavior problems, adjusting for confounders.
Among 1948 dyads (child age M = 5.13 (SD = 1.02) years; 38% Black, 44% White; 8.5% Hispanic), maternal history of CTE and PSLE were independently associated with children’s psychopathology: higher CTE and PSLE counts were related to higher total problems ([ßCTE = 0.11, 95% CI [.06, .16]; ßSLE = 0.21, 95% CI [.14, 0.27]) and greater odds of clinical levels of problems (ORCTE = 1.41; 95% CI [1.12, 1.78]; ORPSLE = 1.36; 95% CI [1.23, 1.51]). Tests of interaction showed PSLEs were more strongly associated with child problems for each additional CTE experienced.
Findings confirm that maternal exposure to CTE and PSLE are independently associated with child mental health, and history of CTE exacerbates the risk associated with PSLE, highlighting intergenerational risk pathways for early psychopathology. Given the prevalence of these exposures, prevention and intervention programs that reduce childhood trauma and stress during pregnancy will likely positively impact women’s and their children’s health.