Teens With Depressed Parents Are More Likely To Take Risks, Break The Rules

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Risky behaviors, such as underage drinking, are found more commonly in teenagers whose parents are depressed. Photo Courtesy Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s not easy being a parent, but can parents’ depression affect their children? Research has already shown us that the children of depressed parents suffer in school, and now, a new study suggests parental depression restructures teens’ brains, leading them to break more rules and take more risks.

The study, which is published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, included 23 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17. These teens were asked to complete a computer-based task twice — at the beginning and end of 18 months — while the researchers monitored the changes in their brains’ blood oxygen levels using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The task required the teenagers to click a button to inflate a balloon on a computer screen. The goal of the task, the researchers said, was to inflate the balloon as much as possible without popping it. And the more clicks a teen made, the greater the monetary reward they’d receive. If the balloon popped, however, they’d receive nothing.

"The more risky they are in real life, the more risky they are on the task as well," said study author and University of Illinois psychology professor Eva Telzer, in a press release.

In addition to measuring the teens’ tendencies toward risky behavior through the computer task, the researchers also collected additional information about their typical behaviors, such as how often they’d sneak out without parental permission, their histories of substance abuse, and their likelihood to party.

To measure depressive symptoms in the teen’s parents, the researchers surveyed the parents on how closely they identified with statements like "I couldn't shake off the blues" and "Everything I did was an effort." All of the parents included in the study were not being treated for clinical depression.

The researchers found that the teens who were most inclined to take risks had the parents with the greatest amount of depressive symptoms.

"Even if you are not clinically depressed and seeking out help, your teen is probably picking up on the negative emotions that you may be experiencing," Telzer said. Though teens may only be unconsciously aware of their parent’s depression, the researchers note that this can shape the way teens’ brains respond to risky situations.

"There are a lot of changes happening in the teen years, especially when we are thinking about risk-taking behaviors," Telzer said.

Over the 18 months between the two study trials, the researchers saw changes in how the teens' brains responded to risk taking. "They show increases over time in activation in the ventral striatum," Telzer said. "The ventral striatum is a key brain region involved in risk taking, and it has also been linked in some studies to depression."

These findings have shed light on the link between parental depression and risk-taking, but further research will be required to understand why the teenage brain responds to parental depression in this way, and how it affects their lives moving forward.

Source: Qu Y, Fuligni AJ, Galvan A, Lieberman MD, Telzer EH. Links between parental depression and longitudinal changes in youth’s neural sensitivity to rewards. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2016.

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