Linking childhood emotional abuse and adult depressive symptoms: The role of mentalizing incapacity

Tianyu Li, Ellen Carracher, Timothy Bird

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Background. Accumulated evidence suggests that childhood emotional abuse is particularly related to adulthood depression. However, this connection demands further explanation regarding potential intermediate factors.

Objective. This study aims to disentangle the independent effects of emotional abuse on adulthood depressive symptoms by statistically controlling for other forms of childhood maltreatment, and to examine mentalizing incapacity (i.e., hypermentalizing, hypomentalizing) as a potential mediator in this relationship.

Participants. A general sample of 205 adults were assessed online.

Method. Participants completed a set of self-report measures assessing childhood maltreatment history, mentalizing and depression symptoms. Hierarchical multiple regression was employed to assess the independent effect of emotional abuse on depression. Bootstrap analysis was used to test mediation models.

Results. Emotional abuse continued to exert a significant effect on adulthood depression after controlling for other forms of childhood maltreatment and mentalizing incapacity. A mediation effect between childhood emotional abuse and adulthood depression symptoms via mentalizing incapacity, both hypermentalizing (b=2.02, 95% CI [0.96, 3.25]) and hypomentalizing, (b=1.26, 95% CI [0.59, 1.99]), was established.

Conclusions. This study provided preliminary evidence for hypermentalizing and hypomentalizing as mechanisms whereby early emotional abuse can lead to later depression. A normal to high level of mentalizing capacity might serve as a protective factor to suspend the pathway from childhood maltreatment to subsequent depression and become a promising target in psychological treatments. As cross-sectional data does not allow conclusions to be drawn on causal relationships, longitudinal data in a more representative sample is needed to capture relevant context and further examine our findings.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104253
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Early online date4 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • emotional abuse
  • depression
  • mentalizing
  • hypermentalizing
  • hypomentalizing


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