The teenage years are a challenging time for adolescents even in a best case environment. New research now finds that teens exposed to difficult family situations have an increased risk of being bullied and for developing depression.
However, there is hope as researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered strong friendships and family support can reduce these risks.
Adolescence is a key time in an individual’s development and is a period where some teenagers begin to show signs of major depression, especially if the teen experiences family adversity. Adversity may occur in a variety of formats including poor parenting and lack of affection, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, family financial problems or the loss of a family member.
Another major risk factor for depression is bullying by peers — and the combined experience of childhood family adversity and peer bullying is associated with increased severity of depression symptoms.
In the past, studies have suggested that friendships and supportive family environments may help protect adolescents from depression if they have experienced peer bullying and childhood family adversity.
However, no study has simultaneously examined the complex interplay of early life adversity, bullying, family support, and friendships on later adolescent depression. To address this real-world scenario, researchers at the Department of Psychiatry studied almost 800 teenagers (322 boys and 449 girls).
Investigators used mathematical modelling to examine the impact of friendships and family support at age 14 on depressive symptoms at age 17 in adolescents who had previously experienced childhood family adversity and primary school bullying.
“Teenage years can be difficult for everyone, but we found that this is particularly the case for those teens who have had a difficult family environment,” explains Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, the study’s first author.
“Adolescents who had experienced negative family environments are more likely to be bullied at school, and less likely to receive family support in adolescence. We also found that children who were bullied in primary school were less likely to have supportive friendships in adolescence.
“In fact, we found a strong relationship between having a negative family environment and being bullied at primary school. This puts teens at a double disadvantage and means they are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of depression in their late teens.”
A teens response to this stress was found to vary by gender. For example, boys who had been bullied were less likely than girls to develop strong friendships in adolescence. Researchers believe this may occur because boys experienced more severe bullying or were more sensitive to bullying.
Significantly, the researchers also found that supportive family or friends in early adolescence could help reduce depressive symptoms in later teenage years. Although it is not clear from the results on how social support influences later life mental health, the researchers believe teen support has long-term benefits.
Investigators believe supportive friends and family environments may help enhance children’s ability to cope with adverse situations by improving their self-esteem and offering stress-relief and through helping them develop effective interpersonal skills.
“Our work really shows how important it is that children and teenagers have strong support from their family and friends, particularly if their childhood has been a difficult one,” adds Professor Ian Goodyer, senior author.
“It also suggests a role for interventions such as helping parents in at-risk families develop their parenting and support skills or helping bullied teens build their confidence and social skills to help find and maintain friendships.”
The study appears in the open access journal PLOS ONE.