• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 21st March, 2012

Is being helpful bad for teens’ health?

“Acts of kindness and assistance, which appear at an early age in some children, might contribute to making these individuals more vulnerable than others. Once these children become adolescents, they may keep helping others without taking into account their own well-being,” argue a team of Belgian researchers in the most recent edition of the Journal of Adolescence.Their study of school-related predictors of depressive mood in adolescent boys and girls highlights the importance of peer relationships for adolescents’ mental health. The nature of the teenagers’ social relationships trumped both academic achievement and the student-teacher relationship when it came to predicting which boys and girls developed symptoms of depression.Rates of depression among school children are high and continue to increase. In an effort to explore how school context might contribute to young people’s depressive symptoms, psychologist Aurore Boulard and a team of researchers from the University of Liege, Belgium, surveyed almost 3,000 secondary school students. The students, who attend French-speaking schools in Belgium, were aged 12-18 years. Boulard’s team found that the most vulnerable young people displayed higher levels of pro-social behavior. Perhaps trying to help others can lead to depression – or it could be the other way around. As the authors noted, “Adolescent girls and boys who are at highest risk for depressive mood may have a stronger tendency to seek peer contact than others. This reassurance-seeking behavior could be perceived as excessive and could lead to peer rejection, which would in turn increase the feelings of exclusion and the depressive mood experienced by at-risk adolescents.” And pro-social behavior was not the only predictor for depression, or even the strongest. The research team also found that verbal bullying, a common experience among the surveyed boys and girls, was very strongly associated with depressive mood. Often covert, and less visible to teachers and parents, verbal aggression, threats and humiliation were much stronger predictors of depression for the teenagers than physical assaults or physical attacks on their belongings. “Shaming experiences are especially powerful because they cannot be easily identified by parents or teachers, and because such experiences are often perceived as acceptable by adults or even by adolescents,” the authors said.It seems that being a girl doesn’t help either. Although the teenage years are a sensitive period for both sexes, girls are twice as likely to suffer from depressive mood as their male peers.Interestingly, the quality of relationships with teachers and students’ achievement in the classroom was not related to levels of depression in the surveyed adolescents. Students’ feelings that their teachers care about their problems or about their ideas and take them into consideration were not a significant predictor. Neither was participants’ perception of their own level of academic achievement. Another aspect of the school context - “pedagogical practices reflecting elitism” - also had little relationship to adolescents’ well being.The study suggests that those interested in the prevention of depression in youth might focus their efforts on the quality of teens’ peer relationships. However, it is important to note that this study was not designed to identify causal relationships. The study reports that verbal bullying and pro-social behavior are associated with depressive mood. It could be that children who experience depression are more likely to be bullied and develop excessive levels of pro-social behavior. In order to establish the relationship between the social context and depression, further longitudinal or ethnographic research is needed. ************Reference: Boulard, A., Quertemont, E., Gauthier, J-M., & Born, M. (2012). Social context in school: Its relation to adolescents’ depressive mood. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 143-152.

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