What is the evidence that early life experiences influence the development of negative cognitive structures

We have now reviewed the evidence that supports the idea that specific cognitive processes are associated with depression. We have seen that these processes operate on both the overt level and at deeper levels that can be detected indirectly but reliably. A logical question is, where do these beliefs and thoughts come from? The cognitive model suggests that a "child learns to construe reality through his or her early experiences with the environment, especially with significant others. Sometimes, these early experiences lead children to accept attitudes and beliefs that will later prove maladaptive" (Beck & Young, 1985, p. 207). Based on this assumption, the cognitive-mediation hypothesis states that cognitive processes and maladaptive beliefs mediate between developmental risk factors and subsequent onset of depression (Ingram et al., 1998). We next address the scientific basis of the cognitive-mediation hypothesis.

Certainly, the children of depressed parents are at increased risk of psychiatric problems, particularly major depression in adolescence and adulthood (Cohn et al., 1986; Field, 1984; Tronick & Gianino, 1986). Furthermore, depressed adults do tend to report having been parented in problematic ways in childhood (e.g., Brewin et al., 1992; Koestner et al., 1991; Zemore & Rinholm, 1989). However, these findings could be due to a number of factors. What is more important to demonstrate, from the perspective of the cognitive model, is that early experiences influence the formation of cognitive systems that make an individual vulnerable to depression. Unfortunately, this mediation hypothesis has not been studied sufficiently to draw a conclusion. In one study using an undergraduate sample, very limited support was found for a mediating relationship of cognitive variables between reports of maladaptive parenting and subsequent depression (Whisman & McGarvey, 1995). Moreover, among depressed patients, a history of developmental adversity, most notably sexual abuse, is associated with more dysfunctional cognitive styles (Rose et al., 1994). In another study using a young adolescent sample, self-worth was found to mediate between reports of maternal parenting and depressive symptoms (Garber & Robinson, 1997; Garber et al., 1997). To date, only limited innovative work is beginning to address cognitive mechanisms directly. This work tentatively suggests that maladaptive beliefs about the self and others may emerge early in the development of at-risk children (e.g., Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Coyne & Whiffen, 1995; Taylor & Ingram, 1999).

In summary, the research suggests guarded evidence for the cognitive-mediation hypothesis in several circumscribed areas. Childhood loss coupled with inadequate post-bereavement care, poor parenting (particularly lack of care, rejection or criticism, and over-controlling disciplinary practices), insecure attachments, and childhood sexual abuse appear to set the stage for subsequent depression. However, the available evidence suggests that these factors are neither necessary nor sufficient causal factors, but are risk factors for subsequent problems that predate depression.

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