Distrust and lack of communication in families may make teens more prone to depression and anxiety
The importance of family support in living with and recovering from mental illness is undeniable. Countless studies have shown that a supportive family is tied to better outcomes and more sustainable recovery. They help a person with mental illness navigate life and its challenges, provide a safety net during relapses or particularly trying times, and they keep you in check.
A new study shows that having a communicative and supportive family may also help prevent mental illness from ever developing in the first place.
The study, published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology, tracked children as they moved through adolescence and into adulthood, assessing them for signs and symptoms of anxiety or depression. Importantly, the researchers also tracked the children’s relationships with their families.
As children grow into adults, their family connections and attachment change significantly while they learn who they are and what it means to be an adult. Typically, this results in stronger bonds by the time they exit their teen years. However, some families face more issues than others, which can lead to alienation or fractured bonds between a child and their family.
Unfortunately, this isolation also breeds distrust and often prevents healthy communication with parents. As Dr. Suniya Luthar and colleagues from Arizona State University observed, this lack of conversation and support may also make teens more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
In the study, the researchers followed 335 children who were in the 6th grade in 1998 and lived in affluent communities. Throughout the study, the children were given yearly evaluations of their family connections and anxiety or depression symptoms until the participants turned 18.
The team found that children with less attachment to their parents were more likely to experience emotional problems, especially during their preteen years.
Throughout middle-school, preteens experienced more than one-and-a-half times more alienation than previously experienced. This was also tied to a threefold decrease in trust and a fourfold decrease in communication.
The teens who experienced the most alienation and distrust were also likely to experience higher levels of depression and anxiety by 12th grade.
There is one notable complication, however. The researchers also saw that those who increased communication the most towards the end of high school were also more likely to experience depression.
Luthar admits that family connections and mental health are often a deeply complicated web. While it is essential for parents to be there for their children and provide safe environments for conversation, this also needs to be balanced with self-care.
“Parents, particularly moms, hurt emotionally as well,” Luthar told ABC News.
Mothers are particularly vulnerable because they “act as first responders, meaning they do their best to diffuse a stressful situation.”
This, in turn, places mothers themselves at risk for depression.
Still, Luthar believes there are healthy ways for parents to actively promote trust and discussion with their child.
“It would be helpful if, during this time of adolescence, parents would look past all the moodiness, distance and irritability, and express feelings of love and affirmation,” Luthar explained.