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Environmental, Temperament: Factors That Influence Children’s Anxiety and Depression

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

According to new research, several factors influencing childhood development of anxiety and depression have been documented. Specifically, when a small child is raised in a family where the mother experiences psychological distress, the family experiences stress or lack of social support, and the child is either very timid, or is short-tempered, there is an increased risk for subsequent development of anxiety and depression. From the article:

Maternal distress symptoms, family stress and lack of social support in their children's growing-up environment in pre-school age leads to an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms when these children reach 12-13 years old.

In addition, the results show that girls are more likely to develop emotional problems at 12-13 years of age than boys.

"Research indicates that girls tend to churn over problems and events more than boys. In addition, early puberty in girls is thought to make them extra vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms," says Evalill Karevold.

Of course, it is that ruminating over problems with regularity that leads to anxiety, then depression. In general, anxiety is a result of interpreting ambiguous situations in a negative light, due to fear that the unknown result will be unfavorable, as well as a belief the individual will not be able to manage the outcome be negative. More from the article:

Another discovery shows that shy children generally have a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression than children who are not shy. If timid boys are also very inactive, the risk of developing emotional difficulties is almost three times as high compared with shy boys with a high level of activity. This does not seem to be the case for girls.

The results indicate that there can be two central developmental paths to emotional problems in early adolescence. One path goes through the child's temperament, especially temperamental emotionality (tendency to react quickly and intensely). A different course goes through the environmental factors that are present when the children are at pre-school age.

The notes these results suggest two different paths towards the development of anxiety and depression. Whereas girls appear to be vulnerable as a result of environmental factors, boys may be vulnerable due to temperamental factors. Another interesting facet of the findings, as they relate to boys, is that a high level of activity appears to shield them from the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The article states this is not the case for girls, though this part is confusing, as it does not state if this applies only to girls who are shy, or all girls. Either way, it appears that, for boys, engagement in activities can serve as a buffer against anxiety and depression, whereas activity may not for girls. I’d be interested in knowing the specifics regarding “high activity,” given we are talking about boys who are shy and timid. Are these activities that are generally individual in nature, such as model airplane building, weight lifting, etc.? Or, are these activities with some level of social interaction, where the boy is overcoming shyness? This would be important to know, from a treatment perspective. Obviously, we would want to improve the social skills regardless, but at the beginning of therapy, should individual activities be recommended until the social skills come along, or should the social activities be initiated right away? Can’t tell from the article.

Other stuff of interest from the article. First (and again), working with kids means working with families. This article notes that very often the mothers of children with anxiety and depression are struggling with mental health issues of some sort. Having mom (and/or dad, if necessary) involved in treatment as well will do wonders for the treatment of the child. First, the parent is signaling that therapy is okay. Second, the parent will become aware, through their own treatment, of what kinds of activities, thoughts, etc. are healthy, and can work with their children to facilitate more of the healthy things in their children as they learn more. Third, there is modeling. As the parent improves through therapy, they will also be modeling to their children healthier ways of handling stress, negative situations, etc., which will then be passed on to the children. The modeling is much more powerful than a parent simply telling a child what is healthy versus what is not.

The article notes that the families are often experiencing stressors, or a lack of social support. Again, this is a family matter, not solvable through child therapy. Even if the primary therapeutic intervention is with the child, the treatment provider must utilize everything available to get the families to 1) work on addressing the familial stressors in a healthy manner, and 2) help the family improve their social support. Again, as the adults work on this, there will be immeidate benefits, as well as the benefit of modeling to the children how things like social support are important, and worth facilitating.

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