It is known that children who are ostracized by their peers and bullied often become depressed. A new study suggests that the relationship may work the other way around as well: children’s depressive symptoms in elementary school precede social victimization and isolation later on.
Researchers followed 486 children, gauging their symptoms of depression and their levels of social acceptance through confidential surveys filled out by parents, teachers and the kids themselves; the children rated themselves and their classmates. Most of the students were white, 16% were African American and 4% of Hispanic or mixed race. Half were from upper-middle-class or high-income families, a quarter were in the middle class and the rest were low income.
While children with symptoms of depression in 4th grade became prone to peer victimization later, the researchers found that being bullied earlier didn’t increase children’s risk of depression in later grades. The children with the highest levels of depressive symptoms in 4th grade were more likely to be bullied by 5th grade. Additionally children who show symptoms of depression — having low energy, social withdrawal, passive behavior, excessive crying, and having an obsessive, negative self-focus — may first be rejected by peers and then targeted by bullies.
“Often the assumption is that problematic peer relationships drive depression. We found that depression symptoms predicted negative peer relationships”, said Karen Kochel, Arizona State University School of Social and Family Dynamics assistant research professor.
“We examined the issue from both directions but found no evidence to suggest that peer relationships forecasted depression among this school-based sample of adolescents”, Kochel said.
“Adolescence is the time when we see depressive symptoms escalate, particularly in girls”, Kochel said. This may be due to the onset of puberty or interpersonal challenges, such as emotionally demanding peer and romantic relationships, which are often experienced during adolescence. “Teachers, administrators and parents need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and the possibility that depression is a risk factor for problematic peer relations”, Kochel said.
The authors write that the “findings suggest that depressive symptoms not only exert (immediate) adverse effects, but also interfere with the developmental maturation of relationships in ways that create longer term social difficulties.”
“Depressive symptoms leave a lasting scar that undermine normal development such as establishing healthy peer relationships“, the study’s authors concluded. The study was published in Child Development. Authors conclude, “Even subclinical levels of depressive symptoms can undermine development of peer relationships and intervention efforts should be aimed at minimizing the adverse influence of depressive symptoms and associated deficits on these relationships.”
The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.