Cognitive Vulnerability Factors In High Risk Children

A number of studies have assessed cognitive functioning in depressed children (see Garber & Flynn, 2001b). Although important, these data are relatively uninformative about vulnerability factors inasmuch as cognitive patterns that occur during depression, and may therefore appear to serve as a vulnerability factor, may instead be a consequence of the disorder (Barnett & Gotlib, 1988). However, one way to examine the origins and development of cognitive vulnerability for depression is to examine cognitive functioning in children who are not depressed, but who are at risk for depression. One group of high risk children are those whose mothers are depressed (Goodman & Gotlib, 1999; Hammen, 1991a).

Only a limited number of studies have examined cognitive functioning in high risk children. In one study that did so, the negative attributional styles of children with mood-disordered mothers were assessed. Findings indicated that the children of depressed mothers reported more negatively toned self-attributions than did children of nondepressed mothers (Radke-Yarrow, Belmont, Nottelmann, & Bottomly, 1990). Rake-Yarrow et al. also found some correspondence between mother and child statements; for example, a mother who endorsed the statement "I hate myself" was likely to have a child who endorsed the statement "I am bad."

A particularly thorough study was reported by Jaenicke et al. (1987) as part of a larger project conducted by Hammen (1991a). In this study, the offspring of unipolar, bipolar, nonpsychiatric medical patients, and normal mothers were examined using a self-referent incidental recall task (e.g., Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). In this task, the incidental recall of personally relevant adjectives can be used to make inferences about schemas and information processing that are operative in depression (Ingram & Kendall, 1986). This task has been used most frequently in the assessment of adults, but was modified for use with children by Hammen and Zupan (1984). Recall results suggested a lack of positive information recall for the children of both unipolar and bipolar mothers. On other tasks, children in the unipolar and bipolar groups also reported a less positive self-concept and evidenced a more negative attributional style.

In another study assessing possible cognitive vulnerability mechanisms in the children of depressed mothers, Taylor and Ingram (1999) examined information-processing indices of negative self-schemas in both high risk (children whose mothers were depressed) and low risk children (children whose mothers were not depressed). Prior to completing a self-referent encoding and recall task, half of the children in the Taylor and Ingram (1999) study participated in a priming (mood induction) task. When recall patterns were examined, negative mood enhanced the recall of negative personally relevant stimuli for only high risk children, suggesting the emergence of negative cognitive schemas in these children, but not in low risk children. Thus, these data purport that depressed mothers may transmit negative cognitive characteristics to their children, which form the basis of a negative self-schema that is activated in response to negative mood producing events.

Garber and Flynn (2001a) assessed perceptions of self-worth, attri-butional style, and hopelessness in the children of depressed mothers. They reported that maternal depression was related to all three of these negative cognitions, and beyond maternal depression, low maternal care was associated with limited child self-worth. Children's attributional style also was found to mirror maternal attributions for child-related events; that is, children made the same types of attributions for child-related events as did their mothers.

In a longitudinal study of the perceptions of control in children, Rudolph, Kurlakowsky, and Conley (2001) found that both stress and family were associated with deficits in the perception of control, and in more helplessness. To the extent that these perceptions and a sense of helplessness contribute to vulnerability to depression, the results reported by Rudolph et al. (2001) suggest that, although parenting may be important in producing vulnerability, other factors also play a role. In fact, data from D. A. Cole, Jacquez, and Maschman (2001) and Williams, Connolly, and

Segal (2001) also evidence that other individuals (e.g., teachers and romantic partners) may play a role in creating cognitive vulnerability in children and adolescents.

In sum, data from studies examining the cognitive characteristics of children who are at risk for depression support the idea that these children have negative cognitive structures available, and that depressed parents may transmit these negative cognitive characteristics to their children. The data also indicate, however, that even though parents are extremely important, other interpersonal relationships may also contribute to this cognitive vulnerability creation. Clearly, children at risk for depression appear to have negative self-schemas that, when accessed, are linked to the appearance of self-devaluing and pessimistic thoughts, as well as to dysfunctional information processing. Theory and data thus make a strong case that negative events in childhood are essential elements in the formation of cognitive structures that place children at risk, and that eventually predispose adults to the experience of depression (Goodman & Gotlib, 1999).

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