Time spent with peers increases during adolescence compared to childhood, and adolescents are believed to become more susceptible to peer influences and more vulnerable to the stressful peer experience of social exclusion. As characterized in the movie “Mean Girls,” adolescent girls especially have a reputation for being exclusive, or “cliquey.” Setting aside the question of whether such media portrayals are an exaggeration or caricature of adolescent behavior, parents might wonder whether they have any power to help their teens bounce back from the impact of negative experiences with peers. Dr. Rudolph and colleagues’ research suggests they do.
During adolescence, there are also changes in brain structure and function that might contribute to increasing rates of anxiety and depression seen at this time. Some teenagers become particularly sensitive to feeling “social pain,” which can be captured by activity in certain brain regions during stressful social encounters. Rudolph and colleagues expected, however, that the impact of high neural sensitivity to a social challenge, such as being excluded by peers, might depend on the quality or supportiveness of the parent-child relationship.
Because girls might be especially sensitive to social stress and vulnerable to depression, Rudolph and colleagues focused on 45 girls averaging 15 years of age from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds (68.9% White, 22.2% African American, 4.4% Asian American, 4.4% other). Brain scans were performed while teens took part in a simulated ball toss game that involved periods of inclusion and exclusion. In the exclusion round, virtual peers opted to toss the cyberball mostly to one another rather than the girl in the scanner. Researchers examined how certain areas of the brain involved in social sensitivity reacted while girls were excluded during the game. Girls reported on several aspects of their relationships (trust, respect, communication, alienation) with their parents and on their depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms were also assessed three, six, and nine months following the initial assessment. Average levels of depressive symptoms were relatively low (between 1.5 and 2 on a 4-point scale), and the average quality of relationships with parents was relatively high (close to 4 on a 5-point scale).
Girls who had better relationships with parents reported lower levels of depressive symptoms at all time points. This was especially true for girls who showed high levels of brain activity associated with social sensitivity. In other words, girls who were most sensitive to social exclusion at a neural level (i.e., most likely to feel social pain) were the least likely to experience depressive symptoms if they had strong relationships with parents, but the most likely to experience depressive symptoms if they had poor relationships with parents. Being sensitive to social feedback, even if negative, then, may not be as problematic for depression, and even may be protective, if girls have the dependable sanctuary of high-quality parent-child relationships on which to fall back. Girls whose brain scans indicated low sensitivity to social exclusion (i.e., low levels of social pain) showed moderate levels of depressive symptoms, regardless of the quality of their relationships with their parents.
Thus, propensity toward depressive symptoms during adolescence appears to be a consequence of a biological tendency to react strongly to social slights as well as the supportiveness of parent-child relationships. Specifically, high levels of trust and communication in the parent-child relationship can protect girls who are more susceptible to social pain during stressful peer encounters from experiencing depressive symptoms. These findings bolster other research showing that parents continue to be influential during this life stage, even altering the impact of biological tendencies. Cultivating parent-child relationships characterized by high levels of trust and positive communication may help girls, especially sensitive girls, regulate their emotions during this socially challenging time.
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