Background. Parenting stress and maternal depressive symptoms are ubiquitous and have negative consequences for children. Pediatricians may be an underused resource to mothers regarding these issues.

Objective. To explore maternal beliefs and perceptions about discussing the stress of parenting and depressive symptoms with their child’s pediatrician.

Design/Methods. Mothers were recruited from 5 community-based pediatric practices and 1 hospital-based practice to ensure a diverse sample. An experienced, trained facilitator conducted focus groups by using open-ended questions and administered a standard questionnaire. Audiotapes and transcripts of the groups were reviewed for major themes by 3 independent researchers using grounded theory and immersion/crystallization technique.

Results. Seven focus groups (N = 44) were convened. Participants were 70% black and 30% white with a mean age of 27 years; 61% were single; 50% were educated beyond high school; and 43% received public assistance as their main source of income. The mean score on the Psychiatric Symptom Index was 26.3 (high ≥20). Within 2 overarching domains (maternal and interaction between mother and pediatrician), several themes emerged. Within the maternal domain, dominant themes included 1) emotional health: all respondents indicated that a mother’s emotional health greatly affects her child’s well being; 2) self-efficacy: mothers believed in the importance of accepting responsibility for monitoring their own well being and that of their child; and 3) support systems: all mothers expressed the need to share parenting experiences, stressors, and depressive symptoms with someone (most preferred to speak with family or friends rather than with their child’s pediatrician). Within the interaction domain, 2 themes emerged: 1) communication: open communication with a pediatrician who listens well was perceived by mothers in all groups as very important, and 2) trust: mothers trust pediatricians with their child’s health, but many were hesitant to discuss their own stress or depressive symptoms. Mothers in all socioeconomic groups expressed fear of judgment and possible referral to child protection if they talked about such issues. Both of these were mediated by the presence of an ongoing relationship between the pediatrician and mother. Mothers were more likely to discuss their own emotional health if they felt their child’s pediatrician “knew them well.”

Conclusions. Mothers are aware that their own emotional health has consequences for their children. Although many mothers experienced lacks in their social support systems, many are reluctant to discuss parenting stress and depressive symptoms with their child’s pediatrician because of mistrust and fear of judgment. Mothers are, however, generally receptive to the idea of open communication with their pediatricians and are interested in receiving supportive written communication about parenting stress and depressive symptoms from pediatricians. These qualitative data are valuable in developing an intervention to help pediatricians assist mothers at risk.

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