Parent relationships are important to prevent depression in kids at high-achieving schools

Children and teens in high-achieving school environments are vulnerable to worse depression and anxiety if they don’t feel like they have close bonds with their parents, new research reveals. 

As children enter adolescence, it’s normal, and even important, for them to develop a sense of individuality and independence. 

But at this age, children still need their parents, often more than they think. 

New research from Arizona State University (ASU) found that the more alienated children in competitive schools felt from their parents, the more likely they were to fall into depression or be racked with anxiety over their academic performances. 

Children at high achieving schools that had poor relationship with their parents are at greater risk of anxiety and depression, new research reveals 

Teenage and pre-teen years are notoriously turbulent times for children and parents alike. 

We once chalked it all up to puberty and hormones – which certainly still play a role – but scientists are developing a far more nuanced understanding of a teenager’s world affects their mental health, too. 

Much like their adult counterparts, teenagers are deeply impacted by poverty, racism and discrimination. 

And bullying and disparities based on these risk factors may predispose young people to a lifetime of poorer mental health. 

But according to the philanthropic organization The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, another leading factor in teen depression has emerged in recent years. 

Especially among students in ‘high-achieving schools,’ pressure to excel can be nearly as great a risk factor as discrimination and poverty. 

‘Teens in high achieving schools face different kinds of pressure, but it is substantial pressure nonetheless,’ said lead author of the study Arizona State University psychology graduate student, Ashley Ebbert. 

Especially in the current job market – where more and more people have higher degrees – the pressure to perform well in high school and get into top-tier colleges is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. 

But support networks and healthy relationships may help teens to navigate the dynamics of middle and high school and the race for good grades without sacrificing their mental health. 

And no relationships are more central to that than the bonds between children and their parent, as demonstrated by the new study, which followed its subjects from sixth grade through early adulthood, under the leadership of Dr Suniya Luthar, a foundation professor of psychology at ASU. 

‘High-pressure schools tend to exist in high pressure communities, and the parents [as well as the children] experience a high degree of pressure about where their children go to school and how they will maintain their high standard of living,’ Dr Luthar told Daily Mail Online. 

‘It’s very scary for parents to watch the level of stress their kids are under … It’s like living in a pressure cauldron for the whole community.’  

Dr Luthar and her team assessed the relationships between 262 children and their parents in order to determine just how important those familial bonds are to students’ mental health.

The students for whom school pressure is a significant risk factor for anxiety and depression tend to be predominantly white and affluent and typically live with two, well-educated parents, and the research sample reflected those demographics. 

To assess the effects of changes in these relationships, the researchers first looked at the children’s answers about the closeness of their familial bonds when they were sixth or seventh graders. 

They compared these responses to how the kids felt by the time they were high school seniors. 

Overtime, the children reported talking less and less to their parents and having trouble communicating with them, feeling less able to trust them, and increasingly alienated from both parents.  

The researchers were somewhat surprised that kids started pulling away from their mothers and fathers as early as sixth grade. 

By the time these students were in 12th grade, the further alienated they felt from their parents, the more anxious the students tended to be – though boys were less affected than girls.  

Most of the study participants said they felt closer in general to their mothers.

But growing distance from moms was more predictive of anxiety and depression than alienation from fathers for children of either sex.

The researchers postulated that because children could feel particularly close to their mothers, they might be especially hard-hit by changes to that relationship.

‘The teen might be pulling away as part of the natural process of developing into an individual separate from their parents, but parents remain a primary influence and the primary source of support for the teen,’ Ebbert said.  

‘We need to be thinking about what we can do to buffer these kids and their families from this intense unrelenting pressure that begins, for these kids, really from the time when they are babies,’ Dr Luthar said. 

She told Daily Mail that the demands of parents may trickle down to their children, but that the ‘state of almost panic about what happens to my child’ that parents, and mothers in particular face signals a societal need to better support parents, too. 

‘Resilience rests on relationships. Kids need to have at least that one positive relationship with a grown-up to feel good. The same is true as parents: we need to feel there are at least one or two people in our life who have our backs when we’re under stress. 

‘These are authentic connections, and they are the single most important thing.’