Marriage and Family Counseling Could Reduce Childhood Depression

Symptoms of depression often first appear in early adolescence and are influenced by many factors. Puberty, co-occurring mental health issues, abuse, and other elements all affect a teen’s chances of developing significant depressive symptoms. Family functioning is one element that is particularly impactful on how children manage feelings and reactions as they age. Children who are raised by parents who engage in volatile and hostile disagreements learn to cope with their own emotions by internalizing or externalizing. The negative repercussions of witnessing abusive behavior can significantly increase the child’s likelihood for depression. However, children who see their parents express love and respect before, during, and after conflict learn how to manage their own emotional challenges in much more beneficial and healthful ways.

Lauren Papp of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin sought to expand the existing literature on adolescent depression by further exploring the effect of parental conflict. For her study, Papp examined data gathered from a large sample of teens who were part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. She looked at the age of puberty onset, the conflict style of the parents, and the depressive symptoms of both children and parents. Papp found that, consistent with previous research, girls were more likely to have symptoms of depression than boys. In addition, the symptoms appeared early and were more significant for girls who had reached puberty by age 11 than for girls who reached puberty later.

When Papp looked at the relationship between parental conflict and teen depression, she found that poor conflict resolution predicted higher levels of depression in the children and also affected the trajectory of depressive symptoms. Specifically, the children who were exposed to negative conflict strategies were more likely to be depressed at age 11 than those who witnessed healthy conflict strategies. These same children also had steeper increases in depressive symptoms as they aged. Papp believes that these findings clearly demonstrate the importance of addressing the family as a whole when working with depressed teens. She added, “Hence, clinicians who treat children’s symptom distress are encouraged to adopt a familywide perspective and consider multiple domains of parental and interparental functioning.”

Papp, L. (2012). Longitudinal associations between parental and children’s depressive symptoms in the context of interparental relationship functioning. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 21.2, 199-207.

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  • bella


    April 19th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    While I think that family counseling can lead to some amazing results in families of all sorts, I do kind of worry that maybe teens will not be quite so open about what is bothering them if there are other family members in the room with them when it is time for them to share.

    I do however think that having the family on board is critical to their treatment and recovery, so certainly having family sessions as a small part of the overall treatment plan certainly makes sense and is probably going to bring that family closer together as well as teach them the skills that they will all need to bring their family member through this.

  • Gregg


    April 19th, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    The family is always going to be the most awesome support system that a teenager can have! Often these are the ones who are first going to see that there are some changes in the child’s behavior and that something needs to be done to avoid a tragedy. They are more than likely going to be the ones who will initiate therapy and nget the child the help that he or she needs. So it makes sense that they should be involved in a lot of the process for recovery. They will have insight that the teen amy not have, and they may also have a better idea of the things that could have necouraged the depressive episode to deevlop. I would always be motivated to get the close family members involved in the treatment.

  • sharon d

    sharon d

    April 19th, 2012 at 11:36 PM

    although the behavior after a conflict , that is conflict resolution may help control the depression, what is done cannot be undone. no conflict in child’s presence >>>> conflict and then a resolution.

  • Amy Harman

    Amy Harman

    April 20th, 2012 at 8:04 AM

    I’m curious about mental health symptoms in boys. Often boys express themselves differently than girls–for example Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or other symptoms of acting out behaviorally. I doubt that only girls are affected by poorly handled parental conflict.

  • alexander


    April 21st, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    For this to work all of the family has to be on board. You can’t have someone who is hesitant to enter into therapy because if that’s what happens then this is never going to work.

    Also, as soon as there is a problem that is witnessed, that is when you should seek treatment, not wait until things get totally out of control which is what too many families do.

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