Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 281–291 | Cite as

Low Self-Esteem and Hopelessness in Childhood and Suicidal Ideation in Early Adulthood

  • Rob McGee
  • Sheila Williams
  • Shyamala Nada-Raja


This study examined the longitudinal relationship between family characteristics in early childhood, self-esteem, hopelessness and thoughts of self-harm in the midchildhood years, and suicidal ideation at ages 18 and 21. Path analysis was used to establish separate models for boys and girls. The results suggested different pathways to later suicidal ideation for boys and girls. For boys, suicidal ideation seemed to have stronger roots in childhood, with significant paths from low self-esteem and hopelessness to early thoughts of self-harm and thence to later ideation. For girls, self-esteem had a small but significant direct effect on later suicidal ideation. The findings provide support for the idea that individual characteristics such as feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem act as “generative mechanisms,” linking early childhood family characteristics to suicidal ideation in early adulthood.

self-esteem hopelessness suicidal ideation 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abernathy, T. J., Massad, L., & Romano-Dwyer, L. (1995). The relationship between smoking and self-esteem. Adolescence, 30, 899-907.Google Scholar
  2. American Collaborative Study of Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Other Sensory Disorders of Infancy and Childhood. (1966). Manuals: Behavioral examinations (Part III-D). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Departments of Health, Education and Welfare, National Institutes of Health.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, J., Williams, S., McGee, R., & Silva, P. A. (1987). DSM-III disorders in pre-adolescent children: Prevalence in a large sample from the general population. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 69-76.Google Scholar
  4. Bosma, H., van de Mheen, H. D., & Mackenbach, J. P. (1999). Social class in childhood and general health in adulthood: Questionnaire study of contribution of psychological attributes. British Medical Journal, 318, 18-22.Google Scholar
  5. Cohen, J., & Cohen, P. (1983). Applied multiple regression/correlation analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Costello, A., Edelbrock, C., Kalas, R., Kessler, M., & Klaric, S. A. (1982). Diagnostic interview schedule for children—DISC. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.Google Scholar
  7. Demo, D., & Savin-Williams, R. C. (1983). Early adolescent self-esteem as a function of social class. American Journal of Sociology, 88, 763-774.Google Scholar
  8. Farrington, D. P., & Loeber, R. (1998). Transatlantic replicability of risk factors in the development of delinquency. In P. Cohen, C. S. Slomkowski, & L. N. Robins (Eds.), The influence of history and geography on aspects of psychopathology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  9. Feehan, M., McGee, R., Stanton, W. R., & Silva, P. A. (1991). Strict and inconsistent discipline in childhood: Consequences for adolescent mental health. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 30, 325-331.Google Scholar
  10. Fergusson, D. M., & Lynskey, M. T. (1995). Childhood circumstances, adolescent adjustment, and suicide attempts in a New Zealand birth cohort. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34, 612-622.Google Scholar
  11. Frost, L. A., Moffitt, T. E., & McGee, R. (1989). Neuropsychological correlates of psychopathology in an unselected cohort of young adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 307-313.Google Scholar
  12. Garber, J., Little, S., Hilsman, R., & Weaver, K. R. (1998). Family predictors of suicidal symptoms in young adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 445-457.Google Scholar
  13. Garrison, C. Z., Addy, C. L., Jackson, K. L., McKeown, R. E., & Waller, J. L. (1991). A longitudinal study of suicidal ideation in young adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 30, 597-603.Google Scholar
  14. Hewitt, P. L., Newton, J., Flett, G. L., & Callander, L. (1997). Pefectionism and suicidal ideation in adolescent psychiatric patients. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 95-101.Google Scholar
  15. Holahan, C. J., & Moos, R. H. (1983). The quality of social support: Measure of family and work relationships. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 22, 157-162.Google Scholar
  16. Joiner, T. E., & Rudd, M. D. (1996). Disentangling the interrelations between hopelessness, loneliness and suicidal ideation. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 26, 19-26.Google Scholar
  17. Juon, H. S., & Ensminger, M. E. (1997). Childhood, adolescent, and young adult predictors of suicidal behaviors: A prospective study of African Americans. Journal of Child Psychology and Pychiatry, 38, 553-563.Google Scholar
  18. Kashani, J., McGee, R., Clarkson, S. E., Anderson, J. C., Walton, L. A., Williams, S. M., Silva, P. A., Robins, A. J., Cytryn, L., & McKnew, D. H. (1983). Depression in a sample of nine year old children: Prevalence and associated characteristics. Archives of General Psychiatry, 40, 1217-1223.Google Scholar
  19. Klimes-Dougan, B., Free, K., Ronsaville, D., Stilwell, J., Welsh, C. J., & Radke-Yarrow, M. (1999). Suicidal ideation and attempts: A longitudinal investigation of children of depressed and well mothers. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Pychiatry, 38, 651-659.Google Scholar
  20. Leadbeater, B. J., Kupermine, G. P., Hertzog, C., & Blatt, S. J. (1999). A multivariate model of gender differences in adolescents' internalizing and externalizing problems. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1268-1282.Google Scholar
  21. Lewinsohn, P. M., Rohde, P., & Seeley, J. R. (1994). Psychosocial risk factors for future adolescent suicide attempts. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 297-305.Google Scholar
  22. Levy, S. R., Jurkovic, G. L., & Spirito, A. (1995). A multisystems analysis of adolescent suicide attempters. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 23, 221-234.Google Scholar
  23. Loeber, R., Drinkwater, M., Yin, Y., Anderson, S. J., Schmidt, L. C., & Crawford, A. (2000). Stability of family interaction from ages 6 to 18. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28, 353-369.Google Scholar
  24. Luthar, S. S. (1999). Poverty and children's adjustment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  25. McGee, R., Anderson, J., Williams, S., & Silva, P. A. (1986). Cognitive correlates of depressive symptoms in 11-year-old children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 14, 517-524.Google Scholar
  26. McGee, R., & Williams, S. (1999). Environmental risk factors in oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. In H. C. Quay & A. E. Hogan (Eds.), Handbook of disruptive behaviour disorders. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  27. McGee, R., & Williams, S. (2000). Does low self-esteem predict health compromising behaviors among adolescents? Journal of Adolescence, 23, 569-582.Google Scholar
  28. Moscicki, E. K. (1995). Suicide in childhood and adolescence. In F. C. Verhulst & H. M. Koot (Eds.), The expidemiology of child and adolescent psychopathology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Nada-Raja, S., McGee, R., Feehan, M., Langley, J., & Williams, S. (1998). Suicidal ideation and attempts in early adulthood in a community sample: Prevalence and risk factors: [Abstract]. In R. J. Kosky, H. S. Eshkevari, R. D. Goldney, & R. Hassan (Eds.), Suicide prevention: The global context. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  30. Nunnally, J. C. (1967). Psychometric theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  31. Overholser, J. C., Adams, D. M., Lehnert, K. L., & Brinkman, D. C. (1995). Self-esteem deficits and suicidal tendencies among adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34, 919-928.Google Scholar
  32. Roberts, R. E., Roberts, C. R., & Chen, Y. R. (1998). Suicidal thinking among adolescents with a history of attempted suicide. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37, 1294-1300.Google Scholar
  33. Robins, L. N., Helzer, T. E., Cottler, L., & Goldring, E. (1989). NIMH Diagnostic Interview Schedule: Version III Revised. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.Google Scholar
  34. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Rosenberg, M., & Pearlin, L. I. (1978). Social class and self-esteem among children and adults. American Journal of Sociology, 84, 53-77.Google Scholar
  36. Rutter, M. (1978). Family, area and school influences in the genesis of conduct disorders. In L. A. Hersov, M. Berger, & D. Shaffer (Eds.), Aggression and anti-social behaviour in childhood and adolescence. Oxford: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
  37. Rutter, M. (1989). Pathways from childhood to adult life. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30, 23-51.Google Scholar
  38. Rutter, M., Tizard, J., & Whitmore, K. (1970). Education, health and behaviour. London: Longmans.Google Scholar
  39. Schaefer, R. S., & Bell, R. W. (1958). Development of a parental attitude research instrument. Child Development, 29, 339-361.Google Scholar
  40. Silva, P. A., & McCann, M. (1996). An introduction to the Dunedin study. In P. A. Silva & W. R. Stanton (Eds.), From child to adult: The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. Auckland: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Stanton, W. R., McGee, R., & Silva, P. A. (1991). Indices of perinatal complications, family background, child rearing, and health as predictors of early cognitive and motor development. Pediatrics, 88, 954-959.Google Scholar
  42. Stanton, W. R., & Silva, P. A. (1992). The parental attitude research instrument: An approach to use of attitude questionnaires. Early Development and Parenting, 1, 121-126.Google Scholar
  43. Williams, S., McGee, R., Olaman, S., & Knight, R. (1997). Level of education, age of bearing children and mental health of women. Social Science and Medicine, 45, 827-836.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rob McGee
    • 1
  • Sheila Williams
    • 1
  • Shyamala Nada-Raja
  1. 1.Department of Preventive and Social MedicineUniversity of Otago Medical SchoolDunedinNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations