The top three risk factors for poor mental health in adolescents — poverty, racism and discrimination — have been the same for many years; but a new risk factor appeared in this year’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 2018 report: ongoing pressure to excel in high-achieving schools in affluent communities.

Although facing academic pressure in a high-achieving school may not seem as big of a risk factor as living in poverty or facing racism or discrimination, decades of research shows that in fact it is.

“Teens in high achieving schools face different kinds of pressure, but it is substantial pressure nonetheless,” said Arizona State University (ASU) psychology graduate student Ashley Ebbert.

Along with Frank Infurna and Suniya Luthar from the ASU Department of Psychology, Ebbert conducted a new study investigating how the quality of the parent-child relationship influences the mental health of adolescents in high-achieving schools.

Their findings are published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

The researchers used data from the New England Study of Suburban Youth (NESSY), a long-term study of adolescents led by Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at ASU and co-author on the paper.

Most of the participating students came from two-parent families where the parents were primarily white-collar professionals and well-educated. Each school year the NESSY participants completed questionnaires to evaluate their mental health and the quality of their relationships with others. The ASU researchers used assessments of the mental health and quality of parent relationships from 262 children.

“Parent-child relationships continue to serve as instrumental sources of support throughout adolescence,” Ebbert said. “The quality of these connections can have ripple effects on adjustment and mental health outcomes.”

The researchers looked at data from seven years — sixth grade through senior year of high school — to see how the children’s feelings about the parent-child relationship affected their mental health as seniors in high school. The yearly assessments evaluated feelings of alienation from each parent, how much trust the child felt with each parent and how well the child and parents communicated.

“We wanted the child’s perspective on the relationship with their parents because ultimately it doesn’t matter much how parents think they are doing,” Luthar said. “It’s what the children experience that is far more important in terms of effects on their mental health.”

During the senior year of high school, the students’ mental health was evaluated with surveys that measured depressive symptoms and anxiety levels.

Starting in the sixth grade, the children reported a growing disconnection with their parents. During the middle school years, the students indicated increases in feelings of alienation from both parents as the levels of trust and quality of communication decreased.

“Kids pulling away from parents is a well-known phenomenon of adolescence, but we found that it really begins in early middle school,” Luthar said.

Preteens and teens often pull away from their parents as they begin to explore self-sufficiency and independence. When this happens, parents tend to give their child the space they need to navigate this independence, said Ebbert. But she added that if this response is seen by the teens as parental disengagement, it can lead to problems like the ones the researchers found in the NESSY participants.

“We wanted to understand how the changes in the children’s feelings of alienation, trust and communication with both parents affected their development, so we examined whether the reported changes could predict depressive symptoms or anxiety by the end of high school,” said Infurna, associate professor of psychology and co-author on the paper.

Increasing feelings of alienation from both parents and decreasing trust between children and their mothers were related to higher levels of anxiety in grade 12. Depressive symptoms in grade 12 were also predicted by increasing alienation and decreasing trust with mothers during the high school years.

The findings also showed gender differences in both the student participants and in the effect of parents. For example, middle school girls reported greater increases in alienation from both parents and greater decreases in trust with their mothers. Symptom levels at age 18 also differed, with girls experiencing higher levels of anxiety than boys during the senior year.

In addition, the teens reported feeling closer to their mothers, which the researchers suggested might explain why the changes in alienation, trust and communication were greater between children and their mothers.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of parents constantly working on close and supportive relationships with their children, even if the teenager or pre-teen is pulling away,” Ebbert said.

“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.”

Source: Arizona State University