The purpose of the study reported on in “Developmental Trajectories of Depressive Symptoms from Early Childhood to Late Adolescence: Gender Differences and Adult Outcome” (2007) was to discover if there were gender differences in depressive symptoms and if these depressive symptoms in early life could predict outcome in adults. The method used was to integrate it into part of an ongoing longitudinal multiple-cohort study in the Dutch general population.
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From a random sample of respondents, children between the ages of 4 and 18 at the time of the assessments were assessed for depression and depressive symptoms as compared with a number of other factors in their lives. The methodology is deemed to have been sound because it was ethically tested at every stage, it used a large random sample from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and it compared results using the same set of comparison questions throughout a long span of time. The results of these assessments were compared and tracked over time, noting differences in gender, symptoms and outcome results. Weaknesses of the study were that the female gender is reported to have been overrepresented and the attrition of study participants necessarily altered the results to some degree.
The study concluded that there are very real and very significant differences in depressive symptoms between females and males. One of these factors that appeared early in the study was that girls tended to suffer from depressive symptoms more often than boys. While there were segments in which boys and girls showed equal behavior in depressive symptoms, experiencing steep increases sometime in early adolescence and reaching deviant level by mid-adolescence, there were other segments in which boys and girls were largely different. One segment of the sample population, all girls, had chronic early-childhood onset deviant depressive symptoms that continued to increase as they aged.
This segment had no male representation or counterpart. A group of boys showed early childhood onset deviant depressive symptoms that would decrease as they aged to a normal level around the time of mid-adolescence. This behavior was not discovered in the female population. These results suggest interesting questions for further research, such as why do only boys experience decreasing levels of depression while girls tend to experience increasing levels.
The study was inconclusive regarding the question of whether specific levels of depressive symptoms in early life could predict adult outcome as those following high trajectories were not necessarily worse off than those with low trajectories entering young adulthood.
This research is personally important to me as a person concerned with the development of children. Understanding that both male and female children may be equally susceptible to depressive symptoms at early childhood is important in helping me know how to help them make their journey through life. Understanding that boys tend to decrease in their depressive symptoms as they age, frequently reaching normal states by mid-adolescence indicates that there is less concern for the long-term welfare of the boy, providing there are no further extenuating circumstances.
The study suggests girls have a much higher incidence of depressive symptoms than boys and that their symptoms tend to increase rather than decrease as they age. While the study indicates this may be the result of physical changes alone, it seems clear to me that there is more at play than simple hormones. Social issues, too, may play a role.
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Adolescents develop at differing rates which leads many teens to be concerned as they may not be developing physically at the same rate as their peers. Adolescents have a universal need to ‘fit in’ thus being behind the developmental curve to peers is of utmost concern. Early maturation can have ill affects on both boys and girls as well. Research implies that although boys who have matured early tend to be more popular with peers and hold more leadership positions, adults often take for granted that early physically maturing boys are cognitively maturity matches. This assumption can lead to artificially high expectations about a young person’s ability to handle increased responsibility.
Early maturing girls tend to suffer more from depression, eating disorders, and anxiety and because of their older-looking physical façade; early maturing girls are more likely than their peers to be coerced into relationships with older boys before they are emotionally prepared (Brownlee, 1999). While boys may find a wide variety of ‘acceptable’ states of being by the time they reach mid-adolescence, many girls continue to struggle with conforming to relatively tight definitions of acceptable ‘female’ types which may significantly contribute to the escalating levels of depressive symptoms as much as physical hormonal changes.
It has been my experience, as a casual observer of media and its effects on others, that women are generally held to a still-antiquated perception of what is acceptable or popular. Girls who don’t fit this mold are beginning to find greater acceptance and representation in the world, but this has been a very slow process. Most films continue to feature slender blonde women in the starring role while commercials continue to highlight the concepts that a woman belongs at home, cleaning, taking care of the kids, organizing her husband and watching out for everyone else. Those who do not fit these descriptions are usually relegated to lower status based only on their appearance.
While some of these same pressures are placed on boys, other acceptable avenues exist for the non-sports type, such as the savvy businessman, the clever computer whiz, even the sloppy football fan finds a social home of higher quality than the overweight woman with acne.
Brownlee, B. (1999). “Inside the Teen Brain.” U.S. News & World Report.
Dekker, Marielle C.; Robert F. Ferdinand; Natasja D.J. van Lang; Ilja L. Bongers; Jan van der Ende; & Frank C. Verhulst. “Developmental trajectories of depressive symptoms from early childhood to late adolescence: gender differences and adult outcome.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Vol. 48, N. 7, (2007): 657-666.