Smile! Parental happiness and teen depression and other summer updates.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Hello everyone! It has been a while since my last posts and I have a few updates before I share with you some thoughts on a recent study on parental emotions and teen depression.

I wanted to start by thanking Dr. Anita Schimizzi, who has done an incredible job keeping child-psych running throughout the summer. We are very lucky that she is part of this project and I appreciate her very thoughtful and useful parenting posts. As Im sure you are too, Im looking forward to reading her posts every week.

Personally, my summer has been quite busy. Early this summer my job at the University of Michigan kept me away from child-psych. However, Im now back but my role at child-psych will change slightly. Dr. Schimizzi will continue to post about parenting issues in general, while I will focus most of my posts on issues related to childhood and teen mood disorders (my primary area of research), and to a lesser degree, early childhood disruptive behavior problems (my primary area of clinical work).

On a more personal note, my summer was also quite busy due to some exciting life transitions. On May 29 I got married to an amazing woman and we spent some time traveling in Thailand and Japan. We are now settling back at home and getting ready to start the new academic year in September.

Ok, now for some quick thoughts on parental happiness and teen depression.

The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology recently published a research report of a study by a team at the University of Melbourne in Australia that examined the impact of parental expression of emotions on their teens risk for mood disorders.

In sum, teens and their parents were asked to complete a psychological evaluation as well as two laboratory activities designed to elicit different types of parenting behaviors. In the first activity the teen and the parent were asked to plan a pleasant activity. In the second activity, they were asked to try to solve a problem that had been the source of conflict (e.g., chores, curfew, etc). The sessions were videotaped and the behaviors of the parents were later analyzed and coded into 3 groups: 1) aggressive (anger, belligerent, cruel, provocative, annoying). 2) dysphoric behaviors (sadness, anxiety), and 3) positive behaviors (happiness, caring, etc). Around 2 to 3 years later, the teens completed a second psychological evaluation.

The logic behind the study is that the behaviors displayed by the parents during the laboratory interactions likely reflect stable parental tendencies that are used in many contexts, including at home. For example, a parent who is highly aggressive during the laboratory task is likely also highly aggressive at home (although parents who are very nice in the laboratory are not necessarily nice at home!). So the ultimate goal of the study was to determine if these parental behaviors predicted whether the teens would develop mental health problems.

The results:

  • High levels of parental aggression predicted increases in depressive symptoms among the teens within 2 years.
  • Low levels of parental positive behaviors also predicted increases in depressive symptoms within 2 years.
  • Surprisingly, high levels of parental dysphoric behaviors (sadness) did NOT predict teen depression within two years.

The authors also examined whether these behaviors predicted anxiety, but I will limit these thoughts to the findings regarding teen depression.

I have to admit I was a bit surprised by these findings. Why? Because parental depression is usually a very strong predictor of teen depression. In fact, about 50% of teens whose parents have a history of clinical depression will develop depression by the end of their teen years. So it was surprising to me that high levels of dysphoric behaviors, such as sadness, did not predict teen depression.

After my initial surprise, my thinking began to shift towards mechanisms. That is, we know that parental clinical depression predicts teen depression, but we know much less about the mechanisms of transmission: What are the mechanisms that explain how parental depression leads to teen depression? Clearly the answer to this question is complex and is part of my entire research program, but the results of this study provide some interesting insight. The common view is that depressed parents usually display dysphoric emotions (they look sad) and that these displays of sadness may contribute to the kid becoming depressed. Yet, this study suggests that is not frequent displays of sadness, but instead a lack of happiness that may contribute to these kids becoming depressed.  

Interestingly, such findings are completely in line with our own findings regarding young children of depressed parents. For example, next week I will be writing about a recent article I published with my colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, which examined happiness and sadness among very young kids of depressed parents.

More next week. Its good to be back. Nestor.
The reference: Schwartz, O., Dudgeon, P., Sheeber, L., Yap, M., Simmons, J., & Allen, N. (2011). Parental Behaviors During Family Interactions Predict Changes in Depression and Anxiety Symptoms During Adolescence Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-011-9542-2