Emotional distress leads children to doubt their competence

Children who experience emotional distress from depression and anxiety are prone to viewing themselves and their world in a negative light ? and this thinking leads them to underestimate their abilities, suggest the results of a long-term study of nearly 1,000 elementary school children.From the Center for the Advancement of Health :Emotional distress leads children to doubt their competence

Children who experience emotional distress from depression and anxiety are prone to viewing themselves and their world in a negative light ? and this thinking leads them to underestimate their abilities, suggest the results of a long-term study of nearly 1,000 elementary school children.

“These findings are important as they suggest that emotional distress is problematic for development, not only as a negative emotional experience in and of itself, but also because it may be followed by negative views of the self and the world that predict underestimation of competence over time,” says lead study author Eva M. Pomerantz, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Many researchers have focused on understanding the origins of childhood emotional distress, but less is known about what happens after children experience such distress. A deeper understanding of the effects of emotional distress and the pathways by which they affect children is important.

“The developmental costs of emotional distress put children at risk for further symptoms and lifetime difficulties,” Pomerantz says.

Pomerantz and study co-author Karen D. Rudolph, Ph.D., also of the University of Illinois, enrolled 932 children in fourth through sixth grades in a yearlong study. At each of three study stages, the children completed tests measuring their depression and anxiety levels, their views of themselves and their world and their views of their competency. Their competence perceptions were compared with reality by assessing their grades in all school subjects.

The researchers found that emotionally distressed study participants were more likely to see themselves and their world in a negative light ? and that these negative feelings subsequently decreased their perceptions of competency during the study period.

Three specific negative beliefs associated with emotional distress led children to underestimate themselves. One involved their tendency to blame themselves for failures while attributing successes external factors, and another involved feeling uncertain that they could meet performance standards. A third negative belief, low self-esteem, led children to underestimate themselves in the social realm, but not in the academic realm.

These findings “are important because they elucidate the processes through which emotional distress may foster competence underestimation,” Pomerantz says. The study results are published in the March/April issue of Child Development.

In accordance with previous research, Pomerantz and study co-author Karen D. Rudolph found girls to be more vulnerable to emotional distress than boys, and thus more prone than boys to underestimate their competence in all areas but one ? the social arena. Strong communication skills may protect girls from underestimating their social competence.

“Girls may receive more feedback that they are good friends than do boys,” Pomerantz notes.

Further study is needed to determine the exact mechanism by which emotional distress-produced negative beliefs lead children to underestimate their competence, but the researchers suggest several possible pathways.

“The negative views of the self and the world that result from emotional distress may color how people interpret evaluative feedback, interfere with how they defend themselves when they are critiqued and cause them to refrain from pursuing challenging tasks,” Pomerantz says. “Each of these consequences may then result in the underestimation of competence.”

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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and a William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Contact: Eva M. Pomerantz at (217) 244-2538 or [email protected]
Child Development: Contact Angela Dahm Mackay at (734) 998-7310 or [email protected]

By Ann Quigley, Contributing Writer
Health Behavior News Service

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