A child’s behavior during the preteen years may predict whether he or she will experience depression, violent behavior or social phobia as a young adult, new research findings suggest.
In a decade-long study, the researchers collected data for 765 children between the ages of 10 and 11 years old. At follow-up, they found that those who reported fighting, stealing or other conduct problems were almost four times as likely as their more well-behaved peers to have experienced depression or violent behavior by 21 years old.
“The good news is that the findings in this study suggest that parents, teachers, and service providers might be able to identify children with conduct problems at an early age and intervene to reduce those problems as a way to prevent later violence and depression,” lead study author Dr. W. Alex Mason told Reuters Health.
Previous studies have also shown that children who show signs of anxiety and depression have a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders in their later years. Other researchers have found that childhood emotional and behavioral problems precede antisocial and other behaviors in adulthood. In many cases, however, such study findings could not be generalized because the study group was referred from a clinic, for example, rather than from the community at large.
To address such limitations, Mason, of the University of Washington, and his colleagues conducted a long-term study of Seattle schoolchildren recruited from elementary schools in high-crime neighborhoods.
At follow-up, about 10 years later, 21 percent of the 21 year olds said they had committed at least two violent acts during the previous year. Twenty and 17 percent, respectively, said they had experienced depression or social phobia within the past year.
Overall, it was the children’s own conduct reports that best predicted their later depression or violent behavior, the researchers report in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Also, the children’s reports of shyness were associated with an increased risk of later social phobia. Parents’ reports of their child’s shyness or attention problems also predicted later social phobia.
Parental and teacher reports predicted later depression and violent behavior, in particular, but to a lesser degree than the children’s self-reports, study findings indicate.
Yet, parents need not fear that their child’s occasional scuffle or other conduct problem is a sign of his or her long-term risk for later violence or depression. “Some involvement in conduct problems is normal for many boys and girls,” Mason said. It is only when those problems begin at a very early age or are somewhat severe that they may indeed increase a child’s risk for later violence or depression, he explained.
The current study did not investigate why childhood conduct problems predicted later depression or violence, but Mason’s co-author, Dr. J. David Hawkins, suggests a possible explanation.
“Some have hypothesized that children who engage in aggressive behavior like fighting, pushing others and other problem behaviors become increasingly socially isolated during adolescence,” Hawkins said. “Their social failures may contribute to the development of depression.”
SOURCE: Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, March 2004.
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.