Developmental trajectories of irritability and bidirectional associations with maternal depression

OBJECTIVE: Irritability is a dimensional trait in typical development and a common presenting symptom in many psychiatric disorders, including depression. However, little is known about the developmental trajectory of irritability or how child irritability interacts with maternal depression. The present study identifies classes of irritability trajectories from toddlerhood to middle childhood; characterizes maternal depression and other family, social environment, and child variables within each irritability trajectory class; and, as a more exploratory analysis, examines bidirectional associations between maternal depression and child irritability. METHOD: A total of 4,898 families from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study reported on irritability symptoms at ages 3, 5, and 9 years, assessed with items from the Child Behavior Checklist. Parental major depressive episode was assessed using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview-Short Form at child ages 1, 3, 5, and 9 years. RESULTS: A latent class growth analysis identified 5 irritability classes: low decreasing; moderate decreasing; high steady; initially very high, then decreasing; and high increasing. Children with more severe irritability trajectories are more likely to have mothers with recurrent depression, and, with the exception of the most severe (high increasing irritability) class, were more likely to have mothers who were exposed to violence. Moreover, paternal depression and alcohol abuse, as well as maternal drug and alcohol abuse, were also risk factors for membership in the more severe irritability classes. A latent auto-regressive cross-lag model showed that child irritability at ages 3 and 5 years is associated with increased mother depression at ages 5 and 9, respectively. Conversely, mother depression at child ages 1 and 3 years is associated with increased child irritability at 3 and 5. CONCLUSION: Irritability development across toddlerhood and middle childhood has 5 main trajectory types, which differ on maternal depression recurrence and exposure to violence. Maternal depression and child irritability influence each other bidirectionally, particularly early in development. Understanding irritability development and its bidirectional relationship with maternal depression and association with violence exposure may help identify intervention targets.