A new study offers insight into the emergence of negative self-cognitions and depression in young teens. The findings, published in PLOS One, suggest that the relationship between self-esteem and depression is reciprocal, with each contributing to the other.
Cognitive theory, specifically Beck’s vulnerability model of depression, posits that negative self-cognitions pave the way for depression. Other scholars have opposed this theory, suggesting instead that it is depression that causes the emergence of negative beliefs about the self.
While Beck’s theory has been largely supported by the literature, his model has yet to be validated among young adolescents. In fact, there is some evidence for the opposite effect —with depression preceding negative self-cognitions among young teens.
“There are two big things that happen in adolescence. One is that developing a sense of identity becomes crucial. Adolescents need to work out who they are so that they can make big decisions for themselves, like what they want to do with their lives,” said study author Catherine Gittins, a clinical psychologist at The University of Sydney.
“The second thing is that depression rates really start to take off, particularly for girls. What we really wanted to know about was, how these two things fit together? Theoretically, feeling bad about yourself precedes becoming depressed. But researchers haven’t looked closely at whether this true for young adolescents.”
Gittins and her colleague, Caroline Hunt, sought to explore the temporal relationship between depressive symptoms and the two self-cognitions of self-esteem and self-criticism. To do this, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study involving 243 Australian 7th graders with an average age of 12. The young students completed assessments of self-esteem, self-criticism, and depressive symptoms at three different time points, each roughly one year apart.
The researchers then used growth curve modeling to explore how self-esteem, self-criticism, and depressive symptoms changed with time and cross-lagged modeling to examine whether there were predictive relationships between any of the variables.
First, Gittins and Hunt found that depressive symptoms and self-criticism both increased over time, while self-esteem dropped. It was further found that depressive symptoms at baseline predicted self-esteem at the one-year mark. However, self-esteem measured at the one-year mark predicted depressive symptoms at the two-year mark (third assessment).
“We found that, even though in adults and older adolescents feeling bad about yourself tends to precede depression, it’s not as simple as that among early adolescents,” Gittins told PsyPost. “Although from Grade 8 to Grade 9 lower self-esteem predicted higher depression symptoms, from Grade 7 to Grade 8, it was depression symptoms that led to lower self-esteem.”
“So there seems to some ‘to and fro’ between them, with one leading to the other, to some extent, and vice versa. This could be because of the special nature of this developmental period: young people are so intent on building their self-understanding that lots of things affect their self-esteem, including feeling down or depressed.”
The authors say that these results largely support the reciprocal-causality model with respect to self-cognitions and depressive symptoms. “Although pathways from self-esteem to depressive symptoms and the reverse for both time-lapses were not seen, there was nevertheless a sense of reciprocity seen across the two-year period,” the researchers say. “Thus, depressed mood appears to influence how adolescents evaluate their own worth, and negative beliefs about the self as a whole appears to increase the likelihood of developing depressed mood, at least for this age group.”
Surprisingly, self-criticism was not found to predict depressive symptoms or self-esteem at any assessment. Moreover, pathways between self-criticism and depressive symptoms remained insignificant even when self-esteem was taken out of the analysis, suggesting that the effects of self-criticism were not simply being masked by the effects of self-esteem. The authors say that, in contrast to Beck’s model, their findings suggest that not all negative self-cognitions increase susceptibility to depression. Among young teens, self-esteem seems to be especially involved in the emergence of depression.
Of note, gender differences emerged. At the start of the study, around age 12, boys and girls showed comparable levels of depressive symptoms and self-esteem. But a year later, around age 13, girls’ depressive symptoms were significantly higher than boys’, and their self-esteem was significantly lower.
“We need to know more about how other types of self-beliefs might be leading to the development of depression. Although in this research we’ve pick out the two big ones — self-esteem and self-criticism — other types of self-beliefs that are specific to important areas in an adolescent’s life haven’t been explored in relation to depression in a big way,” Gittins said.
“So far, the previous research suggests that beliefs about how romantically attractive you are to others is a major one that can lead to depression. If you don’t think you’re attractive, you’re more likely to become depressed. But this needs to be tested more thoroughly.”
“When someone has their first depressive episode in childhood or adolescence, they are much more likely to have recurrent episodes that affect them throughout their life, as opposed to a one-off experience. So, understanding how depression develops in early adolescence is vital, if we want to seriously tackle it,” Gittins added.
“This research supports the idea that feeling bad about yourself is a key component of developing depression. Essentially, we need to get in early and help teenagers to see themselves in a more positive way, so that they don’t go down the path of depression, or provide early, effective treatment if they do get depressed.”
The study, “Self-criticism and self-esteem in early adolescence: Do they predict depression?”, was published December 18, 2020.