Got a depressed teenager in treatment? Parents may want to seek marriage help now

When a teenager suffers from depression, parents often will do all they can to get the child the needed mental health treatment. A new study, however, suggests the grown-ups might also want to check out some help for themselves.

The study by researchers with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that during the time depressed teens were in active treatment, their parents’ marriages and parent-child conflict tended to remain stable —but once the teens’ treatment was ended, the parents’ marital relationships worsened.

“Families might be putting their own issues on the back burner while their teen gets help,” said Kelsey Howard, a study author and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the medical school. “Once the treatment ends, they’re forced to face issues in their marriage or family that might have been simmering while their depressed teen was being treated.”

Armed with this knowledge, parents and clinicians might want to consider counseling for the grown-ups to detect underlying problems, Howard and her colleagues suggested.

The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, found that parents of adolescents who had higher depressive symptoms at the end of treatment experience greater marital problems and more parent-child conflicts in later study visits.

On the flip side, parents whose kids showed fewer depressive symptoms at the end of treatment saw improvement in the level of parent-child conflict.

“Families are interactive, fragile ecosystems, and a shift in a teenager’s mood can undoubtedly alter the family’s balance —negatively or positively,” said Howard.

Mark A. Reinecke, a study co-author and chief of psychology at Feinberg’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said little research has looked at the effect of treating teens —either with medication or psychotherapy —on family relationships. The impacts can be subtle, he said.

“The take-home message —that teen depression can affect families, and that parents of depressed teens may need support —is entirely sensible,” Reinecke said. “It’s something we should all keep in mind.”

The study analyzed data on 322 clinically depressed youths ages 12 to 17. Their depression was measured during the treatment period, which lasted 36 weeks, and for one year afterward.

In teens with higher levels of depression around week 24 and six months after the end of treatment tended to predict increases in conflict with the mother. However, higher depression levels at 12 weeks and 36 weeks predicted more conflict with the father.

Howard said the study did not explore the reasons for the different timing of the conflict between the youths and their parents.

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