• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 12th October, 2011

How can a mother’s depression help explain her teen’s aggression?

The recent riots in England have given a fresh urgency to the question of how adolescent aggression develops. Although it is a complex phenomenon, one important factor that has been shown to have severe and far-reaching effects is maternal depression. Previous research has shown that the depression of mothers has a harmful effect on many aspects of child development, including adolescent aggression [See: Strengthening the Bond Can Break the Cycle). So if a mother’s depression can lead to aggression in her teen, a new question arises: how does this happen? What are the pathways that link maternal depression to adolescent aggression? Two psychologists from the Virginia Commonwealth University took a closer look. They tested three potential mechanisms: informant discrepancy, parenting practices and family functioning. The findings suggest that maternal depression can influence both parenting practices and family functioning in ways that contribute to teenage aggression. However, depressed mothers, rather than having a distorted view of their adolescents’ aggression, were found to be more accurate in their views than less depressed mothers. In contrast to the many previous studies that have included predominantly Caucasian families with higher levels of economic status, this study used a high-risk, predominantly minority sample of adolescents from families with a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds. This focus is appropriate because research has found high rates of depression among minorities and low-income families that place children at a higher risk for negative outcomes.Informant discrepancyFirst among the three mechanisms tested by psychologists Kelly Pugh and Albert Farrell was informant discrepancy. Informant discrepancy is the bias for mothers with depressive symptoms to over-report their child’s level of aggression. One theory – the “depression-distortion” hypothesis – is that these mothers have a “depressive schema” and, as a consequence, perceive normal teenage behaviors as more negative than they really are. An opposing theory is that it may be non-depressed people whose perspective is distorted – and that depression removes these rose-tinted glasses. That is, a depressed mother has a heightened – and more accurate – awareness of her child’s negative behaviors, and does not display the same degree of positive bias shown by less depressed mothers. Contrary to the depression-distortion hypothesis, this study found that mothers with higher levels of depression agreed more closely with teacher ratings of their adolescents’ aggression than non-depressed mothers. This supports the theory that mothers with depressive symptoms are equally or more accurate reporters of their adolescents’ behavior than non-depressed mothers. While mothers with higher levels of depression rated their children somewhat lower on aggression than did teachers, this discrepancy was greater for mothers reporting lower levels of depression.Parenting practicesSecond, the study examined parenting practices as a potential pathway because mothers suffering from depression have been found to be more likely to use “inconsistent, lax, avoidant and ineffective discipline practices.” Parenting practices, such as the level of supervision, parental support and discipline practices, have been linked in previous research with aggression in adolescence.In the study, discipline effectiveness was found to be a significant link between maternal depression and adolescent aggression. When mothers reported that their discipline effectiveness was low, their adolescent’s aggression tended to be higher – and vice versa. Family functioningThird, the proposal of family functioning as a pathway stems from research highlighting the negative impact that maternal depression has on family communication and levels of family conflict. Research has also demonstrated the link between family dysfunction and adolescent aggression.However, the findings of this study on the importance of family functioning were more ambiguous. For example, by some measures, a relationship was found between adolescents’ aggression and reactivity, which is the extent to which emotional states experienced by one person in a family spread easily to other family members. But by other measures, the relationship was not found. Implications for practiceOverall, the study showed a relation between the degree of maternal depressive symptoms and the frequency of adolescents’ aggression. More depressed mothers tended to have more aggressive adolescents. The study supports the finding of previous research that parenting practices (mothers’ reports of discipline effectiveness and mothers’ and adolescents’ reports of parental monitoring and involvement) and family functioning (mothers’ reports of cohesion, structure, and reactivity in family communication) were associated with adolescents’ aggression.However, although maternal depressive symptoms appear to influence adolescents’ aggression by reducing the quality of parenting practices and family functioning, the researchers acknowledged that it is possible that the causal chain works the other way. In other words, it is possible that having aggressive teenagers could be a cause of mothers’ depression.Pugh and Farrell recommend programs aimed at reducing maternal depressive symptoms because they will have a two-fold benefit. First, they will support mothers, and, second, they will have an indirect impact on the reduction of violence and aggression in adolescence. Their findings also suggest the potential benefits of focusing on specific parenting practices, such as discipline effectiveness.Reference:Pugh, K. L., and Farrell, A. D. (2011). The Impact of Maternal Depressive Symptoms on Adolescents’ Aggression: A Role of Parenting and Family Mediators. Journal of Child and Family Studies. DOI 10.1007/s10826-011-9511-y.

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