Risk Factors for Adolescent Depression

Teens that have a parent with a mood issue, depression or anxiety, are at increased risk for developing depression. Symptoms often first appear when the teen is confronted with a challenging life event. “Stressors can be categorized as interpersonal and achievement events,” said Jocelyn Smith Carter of DePaul University and co-author of a study examining which stressors predict depression in teens. “Interpersonal stressors involve interactions with another person(s) such as conflict, rejection, and break-ups. Achievement stressors typically involve failure or disappointment in relation to a goal.” Carter and her colleague Judy Garber of Vanderbilt University stated that the greatest risk factor for depression for teens is having a depressed parent. “Children of depressed parents are exposed to higher levels of stress and have more negative cognitions than children of non-depressed parents,” said Carter. “Moreover, the relation between stress and depressive symptoms has been found to be significant in offspring of depressed mothers, and some evidence consonant with the cognitive stress model has been reported for at-risk children with high levels of dysfunctional attitudes or low self-esteem in relation to depressive symptoms.”

The researchers evaluated 240 mothers and their children; 185 of the mothers had been diagnosed with depression. Among the depressed mothers, over one-fourth of them had alcohol or drug misuse issues and another 27% had anxiety problems. The participants were interviewed at five different points following the children from grade 6 through grade 12. The team found that interpersonal stressors were significantly more likely lead to depression in the children of depressed parents than any other risk factor. Specifically, these teens had increased interpersonal stress levels 61% of the time during the six year study. The researchers said, “Approaches that integrate both cognitive and interpersonal strategies may be especially effective and therefore should be the focus of future intervention efforts.” They added, “Finally, results of the current study highlight the need for the continued development and dissemination of depression prevention programs that target cognitive restructuring and coping with stress, particularly in offspring of depressed parents.”

Carter, J. S., & Garber, J. (2011, September 19). Predictors of the First Onset of a Major Depressive Episode and Changes in Depressive Symptoms Across Adolescence: Stress and Negative Cognitions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025441

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Julianne


    October 6th, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Genetic or a case of mimicking what you have been raised around?

  • Lewis.G


    October 6th, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    Depression can spread from person to person under normal circumstances.And if it comes to a parent who you live with and in your developing years then this effect of depression will only be more pronounced.

  • boeta


    October 7th, 2011 at 3:16 AM

    it can really bog down a person to have a depressive environment at home and being in there everyday can give anyone depression.I just cannot deal with depressed or pessimistic people because I feel they are constantly trying to make me depressed.

    and with regard to parents’ depression affecting children,it is a fact indeed.the relationship is such that the children are impacted and in the adolescent stage this really sounds like something that needs to be monitored by the parents…or rather the depressed parents.

  • Tiff G

    Tiff G

    October 7th, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    It must be so hard to be in the throes of depression yourself and then feel responsible for bringing up a child too.
    We all need help even in the ebst of times when it comes down to raising our children.
    But for someone who is depressed that must be compunded twofold.
    So let us not be so quick to blame the parents here. Some are probably doing the very best that they can. We need to send help and resources their way, and not spend so much time passing around the blame.

  • Daniel.S


    October 7th, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    Well kids look up to their parents to be an emotional fallback.They look towards parents for support.So if the parents themselves are depressed,it does not help the cause.It can in fact create problems to add to the other problems the kids may have.

  • Katherine Mackie

    Katherine Mackie

    October 8th, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    As a mother who suffers from depression (and not one who ever misused drugs or alcohol), I often worry about how much my own issues affected my now adult daughter. I’m quick to anger or cry when I’m depressed and I can see the hurt written all over her face when I snap at her or get excessively annoyed over something that in hindsight I can see was small potatoes. I don’t know how to let her know I love her and that it’s me, not her, that’s at fault without it sounding contrived and insincere.

  • Raven


    October 8th, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    A factor is also teachers. A teacher at my son’s school gave him detention because my son corrected him on the order of planets. Any civilized person would listen, double check and say “Very good, you’re paying attention” before getting on with the lesson. My son was yelled at and he came home very agitated. It upset him for weeks. When he told me about it, I immediately made plans to talk to the principal about the teacher’s actions.

  • John Wilder

    John Wilder

    October 9th, 2011 at 7:20 PM

    @Raven: Those teachers are the worst, the ones that consider themselves infallible. What kingsize egos they must have! They do whatever they want to students and even if they get punished, they can hide behind unions and tenure and continue to be a big bully which causes more problems for more children.

    Speaking of bullies, aren’t they a leading cause of depression among children too? I wonder why we bother sending them to school instead of homeschooling instead!

  • jessica price

    jessica price

    October 9th, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    Nobody teaches you how to deal with rejection. It’s all about peer pressure but never rejection. Some people kids have an interest in simply say “No” and that ruins all of their plans. It shouldn’t cause depression however…kids that are depressed from simple things like a breakup with a girlfriend often seem whiny but they can be the very children that often have problems at home, sometimes involving alcohol and violence.

  • Charlene McCain

    Charlene McCain

    October 9th, 2011 at 7:52 PM

    @Katherine Mackie: A simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way. Even if you aren’t up to saying much more, it’s something that lets her know you regret your actions. And it’s not you-it’s your depression. I’m sure you’re perfectly nice when you aren’t depressed.

    See your doctor and see if you need your meds adjusted if you feel it’s happening more often than not. And then talk to your daughter when you feel more well about how much you love her and that you don’t mean to hurt her. Let her know you’re making an effort to change what’s going on by seeing your doctor.

  • wendymorgan


    October 9th, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    I see signs of depression in my son and it frightens me because I don’t know how to approach him about it. It’s hard enough to get teens to have a conversation with you normally without them feeling you’re being nosy. I’ve lived with it all my life and don’t want him to have to wait as long as I did before he gets help for it.

    How can I broach it to him in a way that he’ll accept it as help, not an invasion of privacy? They are so sensitive.

  • Cameron Drake

    Cameron Drake

    October 9th, 2011 at 8:17 PM

    @wendymorgan – How about getting some brochures and leaving them lying around? You should be able to source some online or from your doctor’s office.Pretend they just came with the mail and put them somewhere visible but out of the way enough that he could pick them up and take them to his room to read without having to pick them up in front of you.

    If you hand them to him or leave them in his room, that may be too confrontational for him. Be casual, then give it a day or two after that to see if he says anything.

    If not, then I’d take my chances and bring them up. Say you read them (which you have by then, right?)and think he’s got some of the signs and can talk to you about it if he wants, then go from there.

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