Children who have difficult relationships with their peers can experience more psychological dysfunction, such as depression. But does the depression lead to youths' relationship problems, or do difficulties in the relationships provoke the depression? A new study of children in the middle years of childhood has found that depression forecasts problems in peer relationships, including being victimized by peers and problems being accepted by peers.
The study appears in the journal Child Development; it was conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Researchers studied about 480 youths from fourth through sixth grades. In the spring of each of academic year, the children and their classmates, teachers, and parents completed surveys that measured their symptoms of depression, peer victimization, and peer acceptance.
The study found that being depressed in fourth grade predicted being victimized by peers in fifth grade, which in turn predicted having difficulty being accepted in sixth grade.
"The findings call into question the often-made assumption that relationship problems cause psychological problems like depression," according to Karen P. Kochel, assistant research professor at Arizona State University, the lead author. "Rather, depression might in some circumstances leave a lasting scar that interferes with key developmental milestones, such as the ability to establish healthy relationships with peers."
These findings can inform efforts of parents, teachers, and others who work with children, especially those involved with prevention and early intervention efforts with youths who are depressed. Specifically, suggests Kochel, "school personnel, as well as parents, should make efforts to recognize symptoms of depression in preadolescents and early adolescents, and minimize the negative influence of depressive symptoms on youths' peer relationships."