The current study sought to evaluate a developmental model linking early social maladjustment to depressive symptoms and diagnosis in the transition to adulthood. In line with previous literature addressing the negative outcomes for children who are socially withdrawn, it was hypothesized that childhood social withdrawal would serve as a risk factor for adolescent interpersonal impairment, which would in turn portend risk for depressive symptoms and diagnoses in young adulthood. The current results provide strong support for this mediational pathway. These findings are consistent with previous research demonstrating a longitudinal relationship between social withdrawal and negative social outcomes (Rubin, Coplan, & Bowker, 2009
) as well as a prospective link between interpersonal difficulties and depression (Hammen, 2005
). It is important to note that the risk conferred by early childhood social withdrawal was significant despite controls for gender, maternal depression, internalizing problems at age 5, and depression diagnosis at age 15. By controlling for childhood internalizing symptoms, we demonstrated the unique contribution of early disengagement from peers, rather than the emotional problems that may underlie this behavior, to the development of poor social functioning and depression. By controlling for youth current depression diagnosis at age 15, we were able to demonstrate that the mediating effect of social impairment in adolescence in the pathway from childhood withdrawal to young adult depression was not an artifact of the correlation between social impairment and adolescent depression.
Significant associations were not found between the latent variable indexing social withdrawal and the depression outcomes. Thus, the findings do not support a direct pathway from social withdrawal to depression. Rather, social withdrawal exerts its influence on depressive disorders or symptoms only to the extent that it contributes to ongoing social difficulties that, in turn, portend negative emotional outcomes. The current findings suggest that social withdrawal may be considered a distal risk factor. That is, socially withdrawn children may be no more likely than non-withdrawn children to experience depression in early adulthood; however, they are at risk for more interpersonal problems, which, as evidenced in the current analyses and previous research, place individuals at risk for problems with depression.
A second aim of the current study was to examine the moderating role of gender in both the longitudinal relationship between social withdrawal and social impairment and the prospective relationship between social impairment and depression. No gender differences were found in the strength of the relationship between childhood social withdrawal and interpersonal difficulties in adolescence, suggesting that the social lives of male and female teenagers are equally affected by the degree to which they evidence social withdrawal in childhood. In contrast, consistent with prior work showing greater depressive reactivity among females in the face of interpersonal stress (Shih et al., 2006
), the association between social difficulties in adolescence and depression in young adulthood was found to be stronger for females than males. In the diagnostic outcome models, a significant relationship between social impairment and depression emerged for females but not for males. This finding suggests that while individuals of both genders may experience emotional difficulties following impairment in social functioning, females may have greater depressive reactivity to social difficulties than males. Further, the tendency for social difficulties to portend a clinically significant, major depressive episode may be unique to female populations. Whereas males may develop depressive symptoms following interpersonal problems, these social difficulties may only rarely trigger a major depressive episode.
One surprising finding of the current study was the significant relationship between social withdrawal and gender. Males exhibited more withdrawn behavior than females. This finding differs from previous research on early childhood social behavior, which has tended to find no differences in the prevalence of social withdrawal between the sexes (Rubin, Burgess, & Coplan, 2002
). Further research is needed to corroborate and examine this sex difference.
The current study expands upon existing literature by revealing a pathway from social withdrawal to depression across a 15-year period. While previous studies have demonstrated that childhood social withdrawal serves as a risk factor for depressive symptoms in adolescence (e.g., Rubin, Chen, McDougall, Bowker, & McKinnon, 1995
), the current study suggests that the risk conferred by childhood social withdrawal extends into early adulthood as well. Boivin, Hymel, and Bukowski (1995)
similarly found support for a model in which social withdrawal predicts negative social experiences and subsequent depressed mood. However, they examined these processes over a span of only two years during childhood. Using three separate time points, the current study revealed that this pathway—withdrawal to depressed mood via social impairment—also traverses developmental stages spanning childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Additional study strengths include the large community sample, multi-informant assessment in adolescence, and the use of structural equation modeling to reduce measurement error.
Several limitations should be noted that may be important for guiding future research. First, as the study was not originally designed to test a hypothesis concerning the effects of childhood social withdrawal, no established, previously validated measure of withdrawal behavior was administered at participants’ age 5. Ideally, observational measures would have been included to allow for an objective observer’s account of social withdrawal in children. Instead, the current study used latent variable modeling to establish a latent social withdrawal construct defined by four indicators of social withdrawal from an abridged Withdrawn subscale of a modified Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1991
) plus one additional indicator reflecting the child’s number of acquaintances. Although these five items did not comprise a previously validated measure of social withdrawal, relevant items from the Child Behavior Checklist have been used in previous literature to assess social withdrawal (Rubin et al., 2009
). Furthermore, analyses demonstrated that all five items loaded significantly onto one latent factor and that the overall model provided an adequate fit to the data. Thus, there was evidence that the measure of social withdrawal utilized in the study was a moderately cohesive construct with significant predictive validity.
A second limitation was the fact that the current study did not discriminate between the various types of social withdrawal (i.e., solitary-active withdrawal; solitary-passive withdrawal; reticence) that have been associated with diverse trajectories (e.g., Coplan et al., 2001
). Thus, we cannot draw any conclusions regarding the motivations behind withdrawal behavior; we can only assert that this behavioral marker may be an early indicator of chronic interpersonal difficulties and, in some cases, later emotional problems. Along the same lines, the limited information gathered about children’s social behavior at age 5 prevented statistical control for early childhood general social functioning in the latent variable modeling procedures. Thus, no definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the unique predictive power of early childhood social withdrawal behavior over and above global social deficits. However, the statistical control of internalizing problems at age 5 suggests that the link between social withdrawal and later difficulties is not merely an artifact of early negative affectivity.
Third, the current study did not assess anxiety disorders or internalizing problems more broadly at age 20. Thus, it is unknown whether this developmental model would apply to anxiety outcomes as well as depression. Future research should examine the role of anxiety in this developmental model.
The findings of the current study have significant implications for understanding the etiology of depression. While previous literature has suggested that interpersonal difficulties serve as a predictor of depressive symptoms (e.g., Hammen et al., 2004
), more research is needed to determine the specific nature of the interpersonal difficulties characteristic of individuals prone to depression. The current study suggests that there may be a behavioral tendency to withdraw from peers that is evidenced in early childhood and that contributes to ongoing difficulties in peer relationships that can subsequently lead to depression. Thus, interpersonal difficulties that precipitate and maintain depression may be related to difficulties that are present during early years of social interaction. It is possible that social withdrawal reflects a temperament or personality trait that can initiate and maintain the cycle of negative social experiences and depressive symptoms. The current study provides support for a developmental pathway that begins early in life with social withdrawal and culminates in elevated depressive symptoms, and, in some cases, major depressive disorder by early adulthood.