How Does a Tendency to Ruminate Develop in Childhood?

Rumination, repetitively playing over negative thoughts, has been consistently associated with mental health problems.

Among children, for example, rumination on anger-provoking situations has been linked to both aggression and depression. Rumination has also been proposed as a path from being bullied to becoming depressed – children who are victims of bullying tend to ruminate on other socially stressful situations more, which in turn predicts how likely they are to develop depressive symptoms.

So how does a tendency to ruminate take hold in childhood? To what extent are some people born with a proneness to dwell on negative thoughts, and to what extent do adverse experiences shape one’s propensity for rumination?

We don’t have complete answers to these questions yet, but researchers are starting to fill some of the picture in.

One piece of the puzzle appears to be what psychologists call inhibitory control. This is the ability to inhibit, or override, habitual responses to things – in other words, the ability to take a step back and not go with one’s first impulsive reaction to a situation.

New research published this month suggests that inhibitory control interacts with several other factors to influence how prone children are to rumination.

For example, one of these factors is anger. It turns out that children with a high temperamental disposition toward feeling angry who also have low inhibitory control are more prone to rumination. Meanwhile, children who don’t have bad tempers but still have low inhibitory control ruminate less on average.

On the other hand, when children have high inhibitory control, their tendency to experience anger has less influence on how much they ruminate. In other words, when children aren’t good at keeping their impulses in check, they can go either way depending on how easily they experience anger. When they have more control over their habitual responses to situations, there’s less variability in their tendency to ruminate.

It’s a similar situation when it comes to the relationship between parenting style and children’s proneness to rumination.

Specifically, children whose parents have a more positive parenting style tend to ruminate less – but only when those children have low inhibitory control. For children with high inhibitory control, parenting style doesn’t seem to have an influence on how much they ruminate.

The takeaway, then, is that it appears having less inhibitory control can make children more likely to ruminate either more or less than average given certain other factors. And these other factors can include environmental ones like parenting style, or temperamental ones like anger proneness.

Image: Flickr/Kelly Piet