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When Poor Peer Relationships Undermine Children’s Mental Health

February 21, 2024
Matías Martínez (left) and Claudia Haase

Children who have difficult relationships with their peers show increases in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) disorder as they head into adolescence, according to a new Northwestern University study.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, investigated whether warm parenting and supportive school environments could help buffer these negative effects.

Both support from parents and schools predicted reductions in symptoms of depression and psychosis-like experiences, said lead researcher Matías Martínez, a human development and social policy doctoral student in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

But these support systems weren’t enough to counter all negative mental health consequences that can occur when children are disliked, teased, or don’t get along with others, the researchers said.

“Social relationships are central for our mental and physical health,” Martínez said. “Our study shows that when things go awry in children’s relationships with their peers, their mental health can take a hit.”

The researchers analyzed two years of data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, one of the largest longitudinal studies of 9-and 10-year-old children in the US to date.

Twenty percent of the children had experienced poor relationships with peers or what the researchers call “peer victimization.” The higher the exposure, the more children’s symptoms of major depressive disorder, separation anxiety, and ADHD increased over time.

Parental warmth, defined as the care, love, solace, and smiles children receive from their parents, predicted decreased symptoms of depression. But it wasn't enough to counter the negative effects of peer victimization.

Meanwhile, environments that encourage children to become more involved and engaged with the school, can help protect children who were exposed to peer victimization from developing depressive symptoms.

But at these same schools, children who struggle in relationships with their peers also experience increases in anxiety and ADHD symptoms, according to the study.

“Even in caring families and schools, children who report poor relationships with peers may need more targeted support,” said senior author Claudia Haase, associate professor at the School of Education and Social Policy.

In addition to Martínez and Haase, the study was co-authored by Yang Qu, Vijay Mittal, Katherine Damme, Teresa Vargas, Beiming Yang, D.J. Rompilla, and Jacquelyn Stephens.

Martinez, Haase, Yang, and Qu, are affiliates of the Center for Culture, Brain, Biology, and Learning at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy.  Martínez also is an affiliate of the Bullying Research Network at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln's College of Education and Human Sciences.