The current study examined mothers' depressive symptoms and mother–child mutuality across children's early years and children's maladjustment in their first year of school. Mothers of 117 children (74 boys and 43 girls) each completed the Beck Depression Inventory at four time points, when their children were approximately aged 2, 3, 4 and 6 years. In addition, each mother–child dyad was filmed playing at the first time point and attempting an Etch-a-Sketch task at the last time point; here, teachers completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Modifications of confirmatory factor analytic techniques highlighted that the measurement of both mothers' depressive symptoms and mother–child mutuality were equivalent across time. A path analysis and a latent growth model demonstrated that individual differences in both mother–child mutuality and mothers' depressive symptoms were stable across the 4-year period of the current study. Moreover, variation in both mothers' initial depressive symptoms and mother–toddler mutuality predicted individual differences in teachers' ratings of children's difficulties. These findings highlight the importance of children's early exposure to and experience of mothers' depressive symptoms and mother–child mutuality. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.