Although researchers have known for decades that depression runs in families, new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York, suggests that children suffering from social anxiety may be at particular risk for depression in the future.
Previous studies have shown that social anxiety symptoms and exposure to maternal major depressive disorder (MDD) are the key contributors to developing depression symptoms in youth.
However, such studies are few that investigated if the risk factors are combinedly aggravating the depression in the youths. To study the relationship, the researchers invited 250 children of 8 to 14y-old and their biological mothers in their lab to complete questionnaires measuring social anxiety and depression symptoms.
Of the mothers, 129 had a history of MDD during their youth’s lifetime, and 117 had no lifetime history of MDD. Participants were re-examined every six months for two years, during which the children again completed the symptom measures.
Their results showed that high levels of social anxiety predicted increases in depression symptoms over time, but only among children of mothers with a history of MDD.
“This provides preliminary evidence that risk for the development of depression among children with social anxiety may be particularly high among children who are already at risk for depression based on a maternal history of the disorder,” said Holly Kobezak, co-author of the new paper and lab manager at the Mood Disorders Institute at Binghamton University.
According to Kobezak, these findings allow the researchers to pinpoint a subgroup of children who may be at exceptionally high risk for developing depression based on two established risk factors that have rarely, if ever, been evaluated in combination.
This information is useful because it can help us precisely identify children in need of early intervention and may lay the groundwork for research that works to identify mechanisms of risk that can be targeted in clinical interventions for this group of children, she mentioned.
The researchers hope that their findings will encourage others to explore the specific ways in which social anxiety symptoms and exposure to maternal depression may work together to increase the risk of depression in children over time.
“An important point is that our findings provide insight into the circumstances that may put children at heightened risk of depression, but equally important is research that will help us understand why this may be true,” said Kobezak. “With that said, we hope future research will investigate additional variables that can explain the impact of the transactional relationship between social anxiety and maternal MDD on depression.
For example, future research could focus on disruptions in social functioning and interpersonal relations resulting from these experiences and whether this might be why these children are at such elevated risk. If so, this could be specifically targeted by interventions.”
Kobezak, H. M. and B. E. Gibb (2020). “Prospective associations between social anxiety and depression in youth: The moderating role of maternal major depressive disorder.” Journal of Adolescence 82: 19-22.