Public Release: 

Child's Beliefs About Mother, Peers Linked To Susceptibility To Depression

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A child's beliefs about others, including mom, may provide clues about a pre-teen-ager's susceptibility to depression, researchers say. With depression affecting about one in every 33 children at any given time and with adolescent suicide rates rising, early detection is vital.

In a multidimensional study of 81 preadolescent children -- ages 8 to 12 -- from lower- to upper-middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds in Los Angeles, psychologists found that the children's negative beliefs about mothers and peers translated into both rejection and depression.

Children who were identified as non-depressed were more likely than depressed children to describe their family and peers in a positive way and to expect that other people would be more supportive, said Karen D. Rudolph, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

"It looked like the amount to which children's beliefs about their mothers predicted rejection and depression actually was accounted for by their beliefs about their peers," Rudolph said. "Negative beliefs about the mother-child relationship might lead to negative beliefs about peer relationships, which then lead to rejection by the peer group."

Interpersonal relationships and their link with depression have emerged as a new area of research in the last 20 years. In this study ­ co-authored by Constance Hammen and Dorli Burge of the University of California at Los Angeles ­ teachers were asked to rate how rejected the children were in their peer groups. Children were interviewed about a series of hypothetical interactions involving mothers and peers, and then asked to describe their expectations or to recall the encounters. They also completed a questionnaire that measured how depressed they had been feeling in recent weeks.

Depressed kids actually remembered essentially equal amounts of positive and negative attributes about the mothers in some of the scenarios. The big difference, Rudolph said, was that "non-depressed kids tended to remember more positive attributes about the mother; they tended to have a more optimistic bias."

"Many of the treatments for depressed children focus on kids' belief systems," she said. "They tend to assume that these kids believe negative things that are not accurate. That may partly be true, but some of these negative beliefs may reflect real problems that they are having in their lives. The children may actually be more rejected by their peers and may experience more stress in their family."

It may be time to also consider what depressed children believe about other people, and to understand what their actual interpersonal experiences are like, she said. The focus on correcting self-esteem may not be enough to address interpersonal difficulties, such as a lack of social skills. It also may be helpful to have families involved in treatment, she added.

The findings were published in the February issue of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. The study, supported by a UCLA Chancellor Dissertation Fellowship, was part of Rudolph's doctoral dissertation. She has continued her research as a faculty member at the U. of I.

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