WEDNESDAY, March 26, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that a child's problems forming relationships and being accepted by friends are more likely to contribute to anxiety and depression than vice versa, particularly during the transition from adolescence into young adulthood.
The study, conducted by researchers at the universities of Vermont and Minnesota, found that young people who initially had more "internalizing" problems such as anxiety and depression were more likely to have those problems in adolescence and young adulthood. Those who were socially competent at the start, though, were socially competent as they grew up.
In addition, the study -- published in the March/April issue of Child Development -- found evidence of spillover effects, where social problems contributed to increasing internalizing symptoms over time.
"Overall, our research suggests that social competence, such as acceptance by peers and developing healthy relationships, is a key influence in the development of future internalizing problems such as anxiety and depressed mood, especially over the transition years from adolescence into young adulthood," study lead author Keith Burt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, said in a prepared statement. "These results suggest that although internalizing problems have some stability across time, there is also room for intervention and change. More specifically, youth at risk for internalizing problems might benefit from interventions focused on building healthy relationships with peers."
The study followed 205 individuals from middle childhood (ages 8 to 12) into young adulthood over 20 years. The researchers used detailed interviews with participants and reports from their parents, teachers and classmates to create measures of so-called internalizing problems (anxiety, depressed mood, being withdrawn) and social competence (how well one functions in relation to other people, particularly with respect to getting along with others and forming close relationships). They then examined how these measures related to each other over time.
Children who were less socially competent in childhood were more likely to have symptoms of anxious or depressed mood in adolescence, according to the findings. Similarly, young people who were less socially competent in adolescence were at greater risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression in young adulthood. The results were generally the same for males and females.
The findings remained the same when the researchers accounted for some other possible explanations, such as intellectual functioning, the quality of parenting, social class, and such problems as fighting, lying and stealing.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about child and adolescent mental health.