Self-criticism and self-esteem in early adolescence: Do they predict depression?

Catherine B. Gittins, Caroline Hunt

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Beck’s theory suggests that forming negative self-cognitions is a key early step in the development of depression. However, others have suggested the reverse, arguing that depression leads to development of negative self-beliefs. As such, there is debate about whether these cognitions are precursors to, or alternatively are caused by, depression. Although Beck’s theory is supported in older adolescents, it has not been clearly seen in younger adolescents. This study aimed to assess the relation between two major self-cognitions (self-esteem and self-criticism) and depressive symptoms in early adolescence. Two-hundred and forty-three Australian adolescents (mean age = 12.08, 52% female) completed measures of self-esteem, self-criticism and depressive symptoms at baseline, then approximately 12- and 24-months later. Growth-curve modelling was used to assess changes in the variables. Cross-lagged analysis assessed whether either of the self-cognition variables predicted depressive symptoms, or if depressive symptoms predicted self-cognitions. Results indicated that self-criticism and depressive symptoms increased over the time period, while self-esteem decreased, and these changes were all related. Self-esteem predicted depressive symptoms from Time 2 to Time 3, while depressive symptoms predicted self-esteem from Time 1 to Time 2. Self-criticism did not predict depressive symptoms, nor did depressive symptoms predict self-criticism. These links appeared largely independent of gender. Self-esteem and depressive symptoms during the early adolescent period thus appear to have a somewhat reciprocal relation, while self-criticism does not appear to predict the development of depression. As such, while low self-esteem does appear to have an important role of in the development of depression in this age group, it is not strictly predictive, nor is this effect seen across all negative self-cognitions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0244182
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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