Depressed Adolescents May Misinterpret Parent’s Moods

Family support is essential for dealing with depression during adolescence. But the depression itself may impair a child’s ability to accurately identify their parents’ moods, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon, enlisted 233 adolescents with depression, and their parents, for a study to determine how well the children could gauge parental mood during a conflict situation. The children and their parents were instructed to participate in two separate problem solving interactions, each lasting ten minutes. The first interaction was of minimal conflict, while the second interaction was a significantly problematic topic for the participants. Immediately after each interaction, the children were asked to report what they were feeling during the discussion. They were then presented a video of the interaction, and while they watched it, were asked to identify the moods of their parents.

The results revealed that the level of the child’s depression was directly related to the level of bias in mood interpretation. “Higher levels of adolescent depressive symptoms were associated with fewer adolescent reports of parental happy and neutral affects and more frequent reports of parental aggressive affect, for both mothers and fathers,” said the researchers. “Overall, these findings are consistent with prior evidence that youth with depressive symptoms and disorder demonstrate a negative bias in perceiving and labeling affect.” They added, “In particular, under-perceiving positive affect and over-perceiving aggressive affect may lead depressed persons to overlook available social reinforcement and support and overestimate the social threat in their environments, leading, in turn, to defensive depressive behaviors with the potential to elicit adverse reactions from others.” They believe that this dilemma results in an exacerbation of depressive symptoms and can further strain family relationships. “Given the importance of accurately reading affective cues for negotiating interpersonal interactions, these findings likely have implications for understanding processes that contribute to adverse relationships among the families of adolescents with depressive symptoms.”


Ehrmantrout, Nikki, Nicholas B. Allen, Craig Leve, Betsy Davis, and Lisa Sheeber. “Adolescent Recognition of Parental Affect: Influence of Depressive Symptoms.”Journal of Abnormal Psychology 120.3 (2011): 628-34. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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  • donna martin

    donna martin

    August 26th, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    Oh wow we all know that adolescents misinterpret everything anyway. They all think that we are all out to get them. So add to this the fact that they could be depressed and bam! That is certainly a recipe for a disaster. And you know that things hit them hard anyway what with all of the hormones raging through their bodies that they do not know how to handle in the first place. I have to say that I REALLY feel sorry for any parent having to live through this!

  • Session


    August 27th, 2011 at 3:59 AM

    Adolescence is a tough period for both the parents and their children. As the adolescent struggles tı control explosive emotions, parents should be patient with them to avoid the arguments. Also they have to remember that these period will be moved on in a couple of years.

  • s.Caddick


    August 27th, 2011 at 5:26 AM

    “If something can go wrong it will”
    And that too at the worst possible time.not being able to gauge the parents’ mood right in a conflict situation could be the deal breaker and could well end up creating a problem situation from just a small conflict.

  • Courtney


    August 27th, 2011 at 6:28 AM

    Just one more reason why parents have to keep those lines of communication open between them and their kids. When you allow those to shut down then there is a greater opportunity for the kids to not only misread what you have to say but to also not feel like they can even talk to you about it. I think that there are too many families who give up during this trying time in the adolescent life, but this is the time to really continue fighting for your child. If you can at leats still talk to him or her, then there is a chance to maybe save them from some of that trouble that many of them always tend to find themselves mired in.

  • GoingInsane


    August 27th, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    This article really hit home for me because I am living it right now!
    I have a teenage son who is depressed and his dad and I are trying to get him help but it is like nothing will get through to him. I am not really even sure that there is a part of him that even wants to heal. And he takes all of that anger out on us.
    He thinks that we are doing all of this for ourselves and not for him and you know that that is nowhere even close to the truth. The fact is that we want him to get better but he is so dead set against it and he will not even talk to us anymore. I am at a loss as to what to do.

  • rupert


    August 28th, 2011 at 3:25 AM

    this is a problem not only for teens but for both teens and their parents.thee just seems to be some magic at work because no matter how hard either tries the communication will have a gap and the other will misunderstand.i can say this because I’ve been on both sides now and its really a relationship that needs to be handled with a lot of care and patience.

  • Rich


    August 28th, 2011 at 5:24 AM

    Kids these days have no idea just how good they have it. Some of them really need to get a clue and get over it.

  • gareth


    August 28th, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    haha ;) parenting a teenage son or daughter should be given the title of the world s worst job! ;)

    no surprises as to what the research says. maybe this is the reason why they think we are doing something ago St them when we are really only trying to make things better for them!

  • D.Hamilton


    August 29th, 2011 at 4:10 AM

    Kids will not understand our point of view and they feel we don’t understand theirs. The trick is to bridge the gap and don’t be too conventional a parent!

  • Nadia Kelly

    Nadia Kelly

    September 6th, 2011 at 6:35 PM

    “Higher levels of adolescent depressive symptoms were associated with fewer adolescent reports of parental happy and neutral affects and more frequent reports of parental aggressive affect, for both mothers and fathers”…no shock there to any parent of a teenager. Mine always thinks I’m on his back even when all I’m doing is asking him in a neutral tone to carry out chores that he already knows he should have done anyway! It drives me crazy.

  • Arlene Caldwell

    Arlene Caldwell

    September 8th, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    Adolescents more often than not haven’t fully mastered how to read body language as accurately as an older person does. Couple that with their depression and you can understand why they would get the wrong end of the stick sometimes. Perhaps that’s why we parents find them to be such a handful that defies explanation at times!

  • M.J.D.


    September 8th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    Here’s a thought. How many parents are dragging depressed adolescents to doctors and they are being incorrectly diagnosed as autistic to explain their inability to read moods, when in fact the correct diagnosis would have been depression?

    Being a special needs teacher I would be very interested to know if that’s possible. Could this go some way toward explaining the sudden surge in autistic spectrum disorders in recent years?

  • Jade Bowland

    Jade Bowland

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    @Donna- I wonder how many of the parents are the ones causing the depression. Isn’t that something to chew on?

    Being overbearing, authoritarian, controlling even insignificant aspects of their lives, forcing their beliefs and ideologies down their throats…all of these could contribute to depression and in extreme cases border on abuse.

  • Jason Toye

    Jason Toye

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    @GoingInsane-Have you tried asking him why he’s depressed? Also, he could be hiding a fact from you that he knows will upset you if he tells you. What you could do is sit down with him and truthfully tell him he can speak his mind without fear.

    If you do, you have to stick to your side of the bargain and accept every single thing he says to you. Then you can go on to do something about helping him without judgment or anger.

  • Grant Reeves

    Grant Reeves

    September 10th, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    If he feels oppressed or suffocated by your attention, you need to let up on him and give him some breathing room. Also, he needs to want to get better. Forcing help on him will make it several times worse and he’ll end up hating you in the end, GoingInsane.

    I know plenty who have lashed out at help they didn’t want from people. They wanted everyone to back off and leave them alone until they felt ready and strong enough themselves to deal with their issues.

    It’s hard I know as a parent to feel so helpless but you’ve told him you’re there for him and that will count for a lot in his mind, even if he rejects that help right now.

  • Hilda Beth

    Hilda Beth

    September 18th, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    I am the worried mother of a son suffering from depression. I read this article in an attempt to learn more about depression. I can say from being on the receiving end of these mood misinterpretations that this happens all the time. When I am just slightly disappointed in my son he seems to think that I’m raging mad. The school therapist has recommended that we see a psychiatrist. I’m really hoping that he can help because your own son wrongfully accusing you of hating him is unbearable.

    One thing that I was thinking is that maybe these adolescents become depressed because they have trouble reading parents moods? I mean thinking that your parents hate you could make you depressed.

  • Amy


    February 11th, 2016 at 12:41 PM

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

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