Emotional maltreatment in childhood might make one more prone to rumination, potentially leading to depression


A study involving depression patients in Germany has found that childhood emotional mistreatment can make an individual more susceptible to rumination. This rumination is subsequently linked to cognitive symptoms of depression and feelings of hopelessness. In this way, childhood emotional maltreatment could elevate the risk of depression in adulthood by predisposing an individual to rumination. The study was published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy.

Depression is a serious mental health disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable. Individuals suffering from depression often also experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns, fatigue, and have difficulty concentrating. Depression adversely affects one’s daily functioning, relationships, and the overall quality of life. It is one of the most frequent mental health disorders worldwide.

Studies have indicated that emotional maltreatment in childhood might be an important risk factor for developing depression as an adult. Childhood emotional maltreatment includes both emotional abuse and emotional neglect.

Emotional abuse happens when a caregiver intentionally tells a child that the it is unwanted, unloved, flawed, or worthless. The caregiver might isolate, terrorize, intimidate, or denigrate the child. Emotional neglect is a relationship pattern in which a child’s affectional needs are consistently disregarded, ignored, invalidated, or unappreciated. Aside from depressive symptoms, childhood emotional abuse has been associated with a range of adverse behavioral and psychological consequences.

Study author Ann-Kathrin Domke wanted to better investigate the links between childhood emotional abuse and cognitive symptoms of depression. As these symptoms are often linked to rumination and feelings of hopelessness, the study authors also examined these two factors. Their hypothesis was that rumination mediated the relationship between childhood emotional abuse and cognitive symptoms of depression in adulthood. Rumination is a tendency to overthink or repeatedly dwell on distressing thoughts, problems, or negative emotions, often leading to increased stress and a worsened mental state.

Participants were 72 patients with a current depressive episode. They were either admitted to the Department of Psychiatry at the Charité Medical University in Berlin, Germany, or recruited through advertisements.

Participants underwent evaluations for childhood abuse and neglect (using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire), depressive symptoms (through the Beck Depression Inventory-II), cognitive and behavioral coping mechanisms in response to depressed and dysphoric moods (inclusive of rumination, via the Response Style Questionnaire), and hopelessness (using the Beck Hopelessness Scale).

The findings indicated a connection between childhood emotional maltreatment and elevated levels of cognitive — but not affective or somatic — symptoms of depression. Cognitive symptoms include pessimistic thoughts, trouble concentrating, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. In contrast, affective symptoms include persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities (anhedonia), and irritability. Somatic symptoms encompass changes in appetite or weight, sleep disturbances, fatigue, motor activity changes, physical pains without clear causes, digestive problems, and decreased libido.

Those who reported childhood emotional mistreatment were also more inclined to ruminate and exhibited stronger feelings of hopelessness. A heightened sense of hopelessness correlated with more severe cognitive symptoms of depression.

Upon constructing a comprehensive statistical model including all these factors, it became apparent that when rumination was controlled for, childhood emotional maltreatment wasn’t correlated with cognitive symptoms of depression. This led researchers to test a mediation model wherein the impact of childhood emotional maltreatment on cognitive symptoms of depression was channeled through rumination. In essence, they postulated a statistical model wherein childhood emotional maltreatment gave rise to heightened rumination, which subsequently intensified cognitive symptoms of depression.

“In summary, we were able to show that childhood emotional maltreatment is particularly associated with cognitive symptoms, but not with affective and somatic symptoms in a depressive episode in adulthood. This influence seems to be mediated by the personal tendency to ruminate,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the link between childhood experiences and mental health in adulthood. However, it also has limitations that should be considered. Notably, the study sample was small, all participants suffered from depression, and childhood emotional maltreatment assessment was based on the recall of events that happened decades ago. A similar study on a sample from the general population and using more objective measures of childhood emotional maltreatment might not produce equal results.

The study, “The influence of childhood emotional maltreatment on cognitive symptoms, rumination, and hopelessness in adulthood depression”, was authored by Ann-Kathrin Domke, Corinna Hartling, Anna Stippl, Luisa Carstens, Rebecca Gruzman, Malek Bajbouj, Matti Gärtner, and Simone Grimm.