Parents, your teenagers hear your criticism more than your praise, a new study suggests

Receiving tough love from parental figures can sometimes cause more harm than good, according to a new study published in Psychological Medicine, which found that adolescents with depression are more sensitive to criticism than praise.

The study suggests that negative interactions between parents and adolescents could be correlated with the development of depression, indicated by measurements of heightened brain activity and mood ratings.

Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands recruited 20 Dutch teens between the ages of 13 and 18 who were all diagnosed with either mild or major depression, 59 adolescents aged 12 to 18 without any signs of depression, along with their parents, to learn about emotional responses to parental interactions.

The researchers assessed responses to what the study calls “feedback words,” or single descriptive words that evoke specific emotions. Participants and their parents were asked to categorize these words as either “negative” words such as untrustworthy, “neutral” words such as chaotic, or “positive” words such as funny.

After this, the adolescent participants were placed inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, in an effort to measure their brain activity while presented with negative, neutral, or positive feedback words, the study explains. Adolescents were also falsely told that their parents would be assigning the words that best fit their personality. Each word was prefaced with, “Your mother/father thinks you are…”

After the MRI scans were complete, participants were asked to recall as many of the feedback words they could. According to the study’s findings, the increase of mood was “blunted” in adolescents for praise, compared to the decrease of mood following words associated with criticism.

In other words, teenage brains were more likely to filter out words of praise than words of criticism. This was particularly the case in in the depressed sub-group.

Through analyzing the brain scans generated by the MRI machine, researchers also found that depressed participants showed a higher degree of brain activity compared to non-depressed participants while confronted with critical — or negative — words. This increased brain activity mostly lit up in what’s called the “subgenual anterior cingulate cortex,” which is a region of the brain largely responsible for regulating emotions.

The researchers said these findings indicate a larger pattern about how self-perception is influenced by criticism.

“This may indicate that adolescents with depression are especially sensitive to parental criticism: they view themselves already negative, and rely less on their self-views when confronted with parental criticism,” they state in the study.

“Regardless of depression status, however, adolescent’s mood increased when praise was more consistent with self-views.”

The study adds that identifying personality characteristics adolescents value about themselves may be key to improving their depressed mood.

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