Youngsters who experience depression or anxiety are more prone to underestimate their academic aptitude, according to research in the March/April issue of Child Development (Vol. 74, No. 2). The reason, theorizes lead author Eva Pomerantz, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that distressed children are more likely to see their world in a negative light, which leads them to underestimate themselves academically and socially.
"Many investigators have been mostly concerned with causes of depression and anxiety--the antecedents to depression," says Pomerantz. "We turned the question around and asked, 'What happens once children are emotionally distressed? Does depression or anxiety change the way they think of the world and themselves?'"
To find out, Pomerantz and co-author Karen D. Rudolph, PhD, also of the University of Illinois, enlisted 932 children in fourth through sixth grades in a yearlong study. Three times during the year, children completed self-report tests that measured their levels of depression and anxiety, and their views of themselves and the world around them. Children's perceptions of their academic competence were also compared with their actual grades.
The study found that emotional distress does appear to color children's views. "Children who are emotionally distressed may use that distress as a cue for interpreting their world," Pomerantz explains. "A child who feels sad sees that as a cue that something is wrong with him. They feel uncertain. When they fail, they think it's because of their lack of ability."
The distressed children in the study tended to blame themselves for failures but attribute successes to external factors, such as luck. They also felt uncertain of their ability to meet performance standards like getting good grades, and those with low self-esteem underestimated themselves in the social realm, but not necessarily the academic. Consistent with other research that has shown girls are more prone to emotional distress, Pomerantz and Rudolph found that girls were indeed more likely to underestimate their competence, however not in the social arena. "Girls may have higher quality, closer social relationships where they get more feedback about their positive qualities," Pomerantz surmises.
The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, suggests that emotional distress may lead to other problems, says Pomerantz. "If indeed these are also antecedents to distress, part of helping [children] is getting them to think differently about their world," she says.
--J. DAW HOLLOWAY