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How Adolescents' Relationships with their Parents Affect Mental Health

Mother Daughter

Research by Dr. Ali Crandall and Gracie Bradford determined that adolescents' relationships with adults are more predictive of depressive symptoms than factors such as economic stress, family stress, or neighborhood safety.

Depression in adolescents has grown increasingly prevalent in recent years and has led Dr. Ali Crandall, public health professor, to study the factors in family life that affect the development of depressive symptoms in adolescents. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework for identifying the needs of the adolescents, Dr. Crandall determined whether the fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of certain needs in family life were predictive of depressive symptoms.

Dr. Crandall used data from the Flourishing Families Project that was collected by the BYU Department of Family Life from a ten-year longitudinal study with 500 adolescents. She evaluated family stressors, neighborhood safety, parent-child connectedness, and youth locus of control by analyzing the results of yearly questionnaires administered to the adolescents and their parents.

Gracie Bradford, a health science student, became involved with the research because she was interested in its potential impact. She said, “I was really excited because of how important the issue of adolescent depression is and how important it is to do our best to fight it.”

The results showed the importance of relationships. “What we found,” Dr. Crandall said, “was that the child’s connection with their parents was the most predictive. If the children felt a strong connection with their parents, the children were less likely to develop depression.” Factors such as neighborhood safety, family stress, economic stress, and poverty did not affect depressive symptoms, but healthy family relationships, or the lack of them, did affect depressive symptoms. Having a safe and happy relationship with their parents and other adults was also related to the strengthening of the adolescents’ internal locus of control, which refers to the adolescents’ sense of control and power over their lives. Dr. Crandall described the importance of these relationships and explained that she tells her students that “if you have any interaction with children, that relationship matters. Anything you do to affect a healthy relationship can be a miracle for the child and for their lifelong health.” In other words, love is powerful.

Bradford added, “Of course, depression is something that can happen to anyone, regardless of their loving relationships, but it’s amazing how possibly just families being connected can be that beneficial to someone.” Healthy relationships may not prevent depression, but they can decrease depressive symptoms.

Despite the host of other stressors and factors in adolescents’ lives, “The family environment,” Dr. Crandall explained, “is still the most salient, most important thing to adolescents. It sets them up for life.” She also explained that love, routines, and structure are the essential things that children need to grow, like plants need soil, water, and light. Parents can rest assured that children will develop correctly if they are supplied with those things.

For Dr. Crandall, the results of the research were inspiring. She said, “It’s refreshing when we find that poverty and education level and things like that don’t have to be someone’s destiny.”

For Bradford, the experience of participating in the research was also inspiring. She said, “Being able to talk through what the results meant and writing about them was really beneficial for me and my future.” She added that the experience taught her about the influence of families and the importance of doing mental health and public health research, because of the impact that discoveries like their research can make, discoveries that provide clarity and hope.