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Maine Research Finds Link Between Friendless Childhood and Depression
01/03/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

Growing up can be hard. Growing up shy and uncool---now, that can be brutal. And as Montreal psychologist William Bukowski says in an article recently published in Development and Psychopathology, that can set children on a path of depression.

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Bukowski, who used to teach at the University of Maine before going to Concordia University, studied more than 200 school children in Maine during the late 1980s, as part of a longitudinal study that continues today.

Personality, and how one is treated by others, are predictors of whether a child will feel depressed. But so was another: friendship.

"Children who in spite of these characteristics, but who could establish a friendship with someone, could prevent themselves from remaining on this trajectory," Bukowski says.

Josie Huang: "Can you talk about what the moderating effect a friend has on depression, and can even just one friend make a difference?"

William Bukowski: "Yes, this is an important point. It was just one friendship that could act as a kind of ballast so to speak. People think what about, what's the value of friendship? Some people have claimed that the value of friendship is that it's an anxiety and depression reduction system. It keeps people off of these negative trajectories. One of the most interesting parts of the study is that it was just one friend that mattered. It was the difference of being friended or not friended that really mattered."

Bukowski started the study as a professor at the University of Maine in the 1980s. He worked with a public school in a small Maine town that he does not want to identify for confidentiality reasons. He surveyed children in grades 3, 4, and 5 and followed them for three years, with the help of a local guidance counselor at the school.

"I had to be very comfortable with the questions at the time--they wouldn't be intimidating to kids or anything," says the counselor, who also asked not to be identified.

The counselor worked closely with Bukowski to get parents to permit their children to fill out questionnaires. "They were like, 'if you could choose a playmate to play with today, if you wanted someone to work with in class, who would you choose?'"

She says some students who had social difficulties as children grew up to be troubled adults, with run-ins with the law. "I see a few that I feel very bad for, that things just never got right for them."

For her, the study's findings about friendship are a reminder to parents and teachers about the role they play in helping children's social interactions.

"I think you have to be careful that you don't let kids spend their time choosing teams," she says. "Even on work assignments and things in class, set up it up so there's a cross-section of kids and not necessarily automatically putting friends with friends, because if you say to a kid, 'who are you going to work with?' they're going to pick the same person over and over again."

Bukowski says that the difference between a shy, socially-awkward kid making a friend or not has to do with the social opportunities the kid gets.

"Friendships don't come from nowhere," he says. "Someone who's had more opportunities to interact with others is going to end up having more friends. It also may be just the availability of someone who likes to do the same sorts of things that you do."

Bukowski says he is working on finding out how much a factor such as friendship plays in someone's well-being as an adult. He says he has a grant from a Canadian foundation to continue his work following his Maine subjects, who are now in their 30s.

"Some of them have moved away, but many of them are still in Maine," he says. "Naturally, you're curious to find out what happened to people. Sorry to say that some of the people are deceased, some are doing better than others. But for the most part it's always great to hear how they're doing."

Bukowski says he's already tracked down 40 of the subjects and hopes to find another 40 more. He plans to wrap up his study later this year.


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