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How Family Communication Influences Teen Depression

                  “There is no question that depression affects teens more than younger children, in fact, it’s probably one of the most dramatic changes in the pattern of depression across a life span …  So this is one of the reasons why this is such an important period of life for understanding depression…  And for many people that don’t have problems with depression over their lifetime, adolescence is the first time it presents itself as a serious problem”.  

Professor Nick Allen, at the School of Psychological Sciences, The University of Melbourne, has conducted studies into the influence of family dynamics on depression in teenagers. Speaking at the Australian Psychological Society’s recent conference on Theory to Practice: Positive Development and Wellbeing, Professor Allen presented research that follows young teenagers from ages 12 to 18 and looks at family communication styles prior to the development of depression symptoms. Through early observations and then periodic follow up over several years, Professor Allen and his colleagues have identified patterns of adult and child communication that predict the likelihood of a teenager developing depression.

Around 160,000 Australians aged between 16 and 24 live with depression each year. Although alarming in size, the reality of this figure is illustrated by a recent study, indicating that 1 in 12 Australian adolescents self-harm. Professor Allen acknowledges that genetics, family history and stressful events all “feed into the risk machine” for the development of depression, but he emphasises that “families are a very important part of the picture.” This is helpful information because it means that parents can exert a positive influence on their teenager’s mental health and help their teens if they do become depressed.

Family Factors that Influence Teen Depression

Families of depressed teens are more likely to have lower levels of positivity and warmth, and higher levels of conflict, says Professor Allen. These two factors sound like they are the opposite of each other but they are independent elements of family dynamics.  So for example, a family may have a high degree of conflict but also a lot of warmth, or there may be a family that doesn’t have much of either.  

The research is not intended to lay blame on families, but instead provide ideas for parents who want to support their children’s emotional wellbeing. The following are elements that appear to raise the risk of a child developing depressive symptoms during adolescence:

  • high levels of conflict in the family
  • frequent criticism from parents
  • low levels of warmth and positivity in the family environment
  • ‘put downs’ from parents towards their children, and
  • lower levels of positive interaction and warmth between parents and children.

Mentioning the ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario, Professor Allen acknowledges that the studies raise the question of: “does the family environment actually play a part in the risk of depression as opposed to just being a result of the stress that’s caused by the young person who’s having a mental health problem?”  And this is where the research is significant – because it indicates that teenagers with depression are more likely to have been living in families where the elements listed above were present prior to them developing depression.

How to Help a Depressed Teen

Ensuring that your family environment is mostly positive and encouraging is important. And learning more about meeting the particular parenting challenges of raising a teenager can reduce the risk of your child developing depression in later childhood. But what if your child is already depressed? Professor Allen shares these guidelines:

  • Help Your Teen Hear Positive Messages: Teenagers with depression are often unable to distinguish between positive and negative behaviour and so they may hear a neutral message from their parent as a negative remark. A depressed teenager may “see their parents as more critical, more aggressive and less positive than their parents are probably actually being.”  If you are saying something positive to your depressed teen, it is a good idea to exaggerate the positive message to make sure your child actually registers your behaviour and words in the way they are intended.  
  • Respond Thoughtfully to Your Teen’s Moods: Research has indicated that as depressed teens talk to their parents for about 20 minutes, they become increasingly upset over interactions, particularly where the interaction is about an issue of conflict. Simple topics like bed times, homework or internet use are likely to be more challenging and affect an adolescent’s mood quite significantly. Professor Allen explains that even neutral behaviour directed at your child can be misconstrued. “For example, if you say something like ‘Can you set the table?’ and they come back aggressively with something like ‘Why are you telling me I’m lazy all the time!’, your natural reaction is going to be ‘I didn’t say that, don’t take it that way’." Because of your teen’s mood and depression, that kind of follow up may be considered a further criticism.
  • Set Boundaries:  Although it is important to reduce levels of conflict, Professor Allen emphasises that “this is not the same as letting your child do whatever they like. You need to set clear rules and then use your child’s behaviour to guide how you enforce those rules.”  Parents can explain respectfully and calmly why a teenager is not allowed to do something, express empathy for their teen’s wishes, but remain firm about boundaries.
  • Be Flexible: and prepared to let the little things go.  In the above example about setting the table, a parent might decide to remain tolerant and understanding of their teen’s mental health and let some of their comments go, rather than using it as the time for a talk about being polite.   
  • Be Non-Aggressive and Non-Critical: keep your cool at all times. No matter how aggressively your teenager speaks, you will achieve better long term outcomes for your teen and family if you are able to remain calm in spite of provocation.

Information and Support for Depression

If you require immediate emotional help in Australia please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are under 18 years old please call Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800. Both these services can help you or, if necessary, refer you to appropriate mental health support services.
 
Contact Details for Other Help in Australia

 
Contact Details for Help in New Zealand