When someone tells me “my child has an easy temperament” they are usually referring to the child’s emotional reactivity. An “easy temperament” child doesn’t react strongly to negative emotional situations. This ‘easy’ response actually reflects two processes: reactivity and regulation. Reactivity is not always good or bad. Some people have high levels of positive emotionality (the child who smiles easily) while some people have high levels of negative emotionality (the child who is easily upset). Regulation, in contrast refers to how easily someone regulates their emotions (most often, but not always, after they happen).
Many studies have shown that high levels of negative emotionality and low levels of positive emotionality are risk factors for depression. This makes sense. We would think that a child or adolescent who reacts easily to negative events, but who doesn’t react much to positive events, would be at risk for developing depression. On average, this is usually the case. However, our laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh (and many others) have found that, in children, it is low rates of positive emotionality, as opposed to high rates of negative emotionality, that drives the association between emotionality and depression. That is, being easily upset does not appear to be a strong indicator of future depression. Instead, it seems that not experiencing happiness is often a stronger risk factor for depression.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, a Belgian team of researchers wanted to explore this issue by examining the role of negative and positive emotionality in teen depression. In this study the authors examined 322 adolescents in 7th to 10th grade. The children completed scales of temperament and depressive symptoms at two time points (1 year apart).
1. Negative and positive emotionality were associated with concurrent depression symptoms. Specifically, high levels of negative emotionality were associated with high levels of depressive symptoms. Likewise, low levels of positive emotionality were associated with high levels of depression.
2. However, the picture changed when the authors examined the predictors of future depression. In this case, only positive emotionality was a predictor of depression one year later. That is, those adolescents who had low levels of positive emotionality at time one were more likely to have higher levels of depressive symptoms 12 months later, but those who had high levels of negative emotionality were not more likely to have depressive symptoms a year later.
This study provides further support for the role of low positive emotionality in depression. This issue is of particular significance because parents, educators, and clinicians are more likely to react to the presence of negative emotionality even though it is the absence of positive emotionality that should be a cause of concern. This line of research has clear implication for prevention efforts, suggesting that parents and teachers should pay attention to changes in positive affect- as low levels of positive emotionality seems to be a strong risk factor for the development of depression.
Note: In order to limit the length of this review, I presented only partial results of this study. The study also explored the role of rumination and self-control in predicting depression in adolescents.
Verstraeten, K., Vasey, M., Raes, F., & Bijttebier, P. (2008). Temperament and Risk for Depressive Symptoms in Adolescence: Mediation by Rumination and Moderation by Effortful Control Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37 (3), 349-361 DOI: 10.1007/s10802-008-9293-x
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