While adolescence often brings a mixed bag of emotional events, new research suggests girls have more interpersonal challenges, increasing their risk for depression.
Temple University researchers believe frequent exposure to stressful events causes girls to ruminate, or overly contemplate their emotional affairs, which can increase their risk of depression.
The findings are published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
“These findings draw our focus to the important role of stress as a potential causal factor in the development of vulnerabilities to depression, particularly among girls, and could change the way that we target risk for adolescent depression,” said lead author, Jessica Hamilton.
“Although there is a range of other vulnerabilities that contribute to the emergence of girls’ higher rates of depression during adolescence, our study highlights an important malleable pathway that explains girls’ greater risk of depression.”
Prior research has shown that teens may interpret emotional events in negative ways. When this is combined with an exaggerated focus on their depressed mood (rumination), they become at greater risk of depression.
In the study, Hamilton, a doctoral student, hypothesized that life stressors related to interpersonal relationships could exploit a teen’s vulnerabilities and increase the risk of depression.
Hamilton believed the interpersonal stress that an adolescent personally contributes to — such as a fight with family member or friend — could especially increase chances for depression.
Investigators reviewed information from 382 Caucasian and African-American adolescents participating in an ongoing longitudinal study.
The adolescents completed self-report measures evaluating cognitive vulnerabilities and depressive symptoms at an initial assessment, and then completed three follow-up assessments, each spaced about seven months apart.
As expected, teens who reported higher levels of interpersonal dependent stress showed higher levels of negative cognitive style and rumination at later assessments.
This finding was confirmed even after the researchers took initial levels of cognitive vulnerabilities, depressive symptoms, and sex into account.
Girls tended to show more depressive symptoms at follow-up assessments than did boys — while boys’ symptoms seemed to decline from the initial assessment to follow-up, girls’ symptoms did not.
Researchers also discovered that girls were exposed to a greater number of interpersonal dependent stressors over time.
Investigators believe this observation shows that it is this exposure to stressors that maintained girls’ higher levels of rumination and, thus, their risk for depression over time.
The researchers emphasize that the link is not driven by reactivity to stress; girls were not any more reactive to the stressors that they experienced than were boys.
“Simply put, if boys and girls had been exposed to the same number of stressors, both would have been likely to develop rumination and negative cognitive styles,” Hamilton explains.
Importantly, other types of stress, including interpersonal stress that is not dependent on the teen (such as a death in the family) and achievement-related stress, were not associated with later levels of rumination or negative cognitive style.
“Parents, educators, and clinicians should understand that girls’ greater exposure to interpersonal stressors places them at risk for vulnerability to depression and ultimately, depression itself,” Hamilton said.
“Thus, finding ways to reduce exposure to these stressors or developing more effective ways of responding to these stressors may be beneficial for adolescents, especially girls.”
According to Hamilton, the next step will be to figure out why girls are exposed to more interpersonal stressors.
“Is it something specific to adolescent female relationships? Is it the societal expectations for young adolescent girls or the way in which young girls are socialized that places them at risk for interpersonal stressors? These are questions to which we need to find answers,” she said.