British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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Prospective associations between children's depressive symptoms and peer victimization: The role of social helplessness

Investigating precursors to peer victimization, a particularly damaging form of peer maltreatment, represents an important research objective. This study's purpose was to evaluate the hypothesis that social helplessness is one mechanism underlying the pathway from early depressive symptoms to subsequent peer victimization among preadolescents in the third through fifth grades (N = 230; 126 girls; Mage at recruitment = 9.48; SD = 0.68). We collected self‐reports of depressive symptoms and peer victimization and teacher reports of social helplessness in the fall of 2015 or 2016 (T1) and at two subsequent time points (T2 and T3) separated by 6‐month lags. Results from a random intercepts cross‐lagged panel model provided evidence for our hypothesized model in which T2 social helplessness partially mediated the effect of T1 depressive symptoms on T3 peer victimization. Findings underscore the importance of school‐based prevention and youth development programmes that promote social‐emotional learning for youth who are symptomatic for depression. Statement of contribution What is already known on the subject? Children's depressive symptoms and interpersonal dysfunction are related in a transactional way. Children who are symptomatic for depression tend to exhibit social‐behavioural deficits. Depression‐linked, social‐behavioural deficits are associated with relationship disturbances. What does this study add? Children's socially helpless behaviour mediated the contribution of depressive symptoms to subsequent peer victimization. Depressive symptoms predicted, and were predicted by, socially helpless behaviour. Socially helpless behaviour increased risk for, but did not result from, peer victimization.

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