Early Childhood Cognitive Delays May Predict Adolescent Depression

Developmental milestones provide insight into how children progress with respect to motor skills, communication, cognitive processes, and even emotional intelligence. When and how well children reach these milestones helps doctors and parents measure overall developmental progress through early childhood. Children who do not meet milestones as expected may be at risk for autism, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), or other cognitive and behavioral impairments. But do developmental challenges early in life indicate risk for depression or anxiety? This was the question C. Rebecca North of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Canada recently asked. North wanted to find out if developmental delays of any sort would increase the risk of later anxiety or depression, and also if stress from developmental barriers would contribute to symptoms or future risk. North led a study that looked at psychological evaluations of over 3,500 children in early adolescence and compared those to developmental milestones met in early childhood. She found that the children who had specific delays at age 2-3 had a significantly higher risk of being depressed or anxious at age 12-13. These same children had more behavior problems early in life as well. Cognitive delays had a stronger impact on future symptoms than did motor delays. In particular, children who had difficulty reaching specific communication milestones were more likely develop issues later in life. But those who had impairments to motor skills in early childhood did not exhibit increases in anxiety or depression in adolescence. Another interesting finding was that of self-care and independence. When North looked at self-care developmental milestones, she found that some boys and girls had delays. But these delays were only predictive of later internalization in the boys. North said, “It may be that achievement of independence from caregivers is both culturally and, in turn, psychologically more important for boys.” She believes that perhaps these early developmental delays or achievements could explain many of the gender differences that exist in mental health problems. North hopes that more attention is placed on early childhood milestones and the clues that they can provide to the overall well-being of children through adolescence and beyond. Reference: North, C.R., Wild, T.C., Zwaigenbaum, L., Colman, I. (2013). Early neurodevelopment and self-reported adolescent symptoms of depression and anxiety in a national Canadian cohort study. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56804. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056804

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  • Benjamin


    April 30th, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    Would’ve guessed developmental delays would lead to disorders..but depression? hiw is that? is it that these kids grow up n see their peers far ahead of them and that leads to depression or is it a mental thing brought about automatically?

  • Jackie Davis

    Jackie Davis

    May 1st, 2013 at 2:22 AM

    I wonder if you would know if a child of eight years old is suddenly unintentionally neglected for the rest of their childhood, could cause depression, low self esteem, even illnesses?

  • Leila


    May 1st, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    Yeah I wouldn’t necessarily know whether or not these two shared some kind of biological significance, but from a purely social view point, it is easy to recognize those children who had delayed milestone achievement at a certain point in early life. It is almost as if you can tell that they are not as self assured and confident, really almost as if this is a secret and they are afraid of others finding out. This could be especially true if this was a learning milestone, because then they may feel like they are always having to play catch up to their peers, and for many there will be that feeling that they never can. For a young and impressionable child this is a pretty heavy burden to carry, and maybe that is why in later years you would more often recognize depression among this demographic.

  • brian


    May 1st, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    an early sign should always be considered.but I dont think a parent would say “hey my child is not doing things his age, maybe something is wrong”.not thinking that is what often leads to not seeking help at the right time.its better to be extra cautious than miss out on important cues.and verifying nothing is wrong is a much better feeling than getting to know you did not act in time!

  • H.P.L


    May 1st, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    I wonder if missing of the developmental milestones would have an effect even in adulthood. Here’s my theory:

    A few children will always reach developmental milestones later than others. Its bound to happen because not all children are alike. And this delay shows up as a delay at ages 12-13 too. But I don’t think this would hold true in their adulthood. Simply because the gap would go on a decline and as the years go by, the delay in achieving milestones goes on decreasing. So the gap between the late bloomers and the early birds also goes on a decline. And that, from a life achievement point of view, is very important.

  • JJ Kentworth

    JJ Kentworth

    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:14 AM

    Totally fascinating. IN hindsite, makes perfect sense in relation to my kid. Wish I’d seen this when he was much younger. I’d have known what to look for. As it is, it’s too late for him. But maybe this will help another parent who has a young kid. I sure hope so!

  • jaleisha


    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:17 AM

    when my baby girl was little i keep trying and trying to tell these doctors something wasn’t right iwth her but they just wouldn’t listen and wouldnt give her no extra help or nothing.
    She couldnt never learn how to read as fast as the other kids and she aint never really understood what she ready anyhow. she didnt never learn her times tables neither.
    now that she grown she always have trouble with depression and always be on medication for it. i keep hopin she grow out of it but so far she dont/

  • Kira


    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:19 AM

    Great information for teachers to have. I hope principals will find out about this information and pass it on to their teachers. Teachers can really pick up on areas kids are struggling with other than academics, especially when they are well trained and know what to look for.

  • Wiley


    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:21 AM

    I just love a well designed study. 3500 subjects is great. It makes me feel like I can trust that the results are fairly accurate.

  • jer


    May 2nd, 2013 at 1:25 AM

    okay so it makes sense that if ur behind when ur little ull be depressed when ur a teenager.
    i mean just think about all those kids that tease u when u don’t no how to read.
    that’s what happened to me.
    like exactly that.
    it didn’t happen to my brother or sister.
    just me.
    they didn’t have learning problems like i did.
    so they didn’t have depession or nothing when they got to be 15.
    like i did.
    it seems like its not fair that i have to have the learning problems and the depression.
    anyway it totally sucks.

  • Cal


    May 2nd, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    Too many times I think that parents and teachers especially want to dismiss it if kids miss these mrkers, thinking that eventually they will catch up.
    That might be the case, but now we have to take a hard look not at just these missed or delayed starts but also how it could impact these kids later in life.
    I mena, who wants to set their kid up for a lifetime of living with depression? I don’t think that there is a parent out there who would say that this would be acceptable.
    That’s why it also has to be unacceptable to continue to overlook these delays in development and get in there from the very beginning to make some changes for the child, be it changing schools or finding more resources that will better teach and reach them.
    The sooner that they are caught up then in all probabliity the lower the likelihood that they will have to go on and deal with some of the other issues like depression that could emerge later.

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