By Lisa Rapaport
Teens with positive family relationships may be less likely to develop depression during adolescence or early adulthood, a new study suggests.
Researchers followed 18,185 volunteers starting when they were age 15 on average and continuing until ages 32 to 43. In a series of surveys, researchers asked them about family dynamics and depression symptoms.
Youth who experienced more family cohesion and less conflict with parents were less likely to experience depression symptoms from adolescence through midlife than young people who didn't have such positive family relationships, the analysis found.
"Family cohesion and low parent-child conflict in adolescence not only protect teenagers from depression during the sensitive and vulnerable period of adolescence but also promote mental health throughout young adulthood and into midlife," said study co-author Ping Chen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The benefit appears different for men and women, however.
"Women benefit more from positive adolescent family relationships than men, especially in adolescence and the early 20s," Chen said by email. "But low parent-child conflict seems to benefit men for a longer time throughout young adulthood than women."
To assess family dynamics, researchers asked teens how often they felt their family members understood them, how often they had fun with family, and how often their family paid attention to them. Researchers also asked about parent-child conflict and how often teens had serious arguments with parents about their behavior.
However, they lacked data on family dynamics or relationships prior to adolescence that might also impact mental health, the research team noted October 7 online in JAMA Pediatrics.
"This study cannot determine whether parent-child relationships cause depression or not and does not explain why the two might be linked," said Dr. Rebecca Dudovitz, a researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA who wasn't involved in the study.
"However, one theory is that healthy family relationships provide social support and lay the foundation in the brain and body for a healthy response to stressful situations," Dudovitz said by email. "As adolescents and young adults are faced with stress, they can then cope with it more easily and recover from stress more quickly, which helps avoid depression."
The study results do suggest that teens who live in a supportive home environment with caregivers who understand them and pay attention to them can help build up positive feelings that may help teens more easily weather life's ups and downs, Chen said.
"Close relations may provide sources of social and emotional support that encourages the development of skills for coping with the changing and cumulative stressors of adolescence," Chen added. "The coping skills developed in adolescence are carried over into subsequent life stages, helping young adults deal with additional life stressors as they age."
At the same time, teens without supportive family relationships may not develop these coping skills, Chen said. They may instead develop more negative feelings and low self-esteem and enter adulthood ill-equipped to cope with stressors.
While family relationships may be one piece of the puzzle, many other factors can impact the risk of depression, Chen said.
"No one knows exactly what causes it," and factors like genetics, abuse, or serious illnesses can play a role, Chen noted.
"Adolescents in less cohesive families need not be doomed to lifetime depression," Chen said. "They may be able to find similar sources of social support and gain coping skills through other social connections with friends, in religious and other institutions, and in the local community."
JAMA Pediatr 2019.
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