Strong parental support lowers the depression risk of young adults, study finds

Young adults who receive ongoing parental support as they get older are less likely to develop depression than those who lack it, according to new research out of Penn State University. And that was true regardless of whether they had moved out of their parents’ homes. 

The researchers wanted to understand whether strong parental support during adolescence has a measurable impact on depression rates years later. To do so, they followed nearly 2,000 teens as through young adulthood, defined as ages 19-26.

The effects of parental nurturing appear to be more immediate than enduring, the study found. Children who received high levels of support as adolescents were less likely to be depressed at 19, but there wasn’t a strong correlation with lower depression risk at 23 or 25 if that support waned in young adulthood. Those who were supported into their young adult years were less likely to be depressed during those years.

“I really thought early experiences during adolescence would be more important and have a more enduring effect,” said Gregory Fosco, co-author of the study and a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. “I underestimated the impact of more current and enduring parent and child relationships.”

Rates of depression in the U.S. reached new highs last year, with the most glaring increases found among women and adults ages 18-29, according to a Gallup poll that has been conducted annually since 2015. The percentage of U.S. adults diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives reached 29% last year — about 10% higher than when the poll first began. Around 17.8% of Americans currently have or are being treated for depression, the poll found.

Slightly more than one-third of adults ages 18-29 said they had been diagnosed with depression during their lifetimes. Of that group, 24.6% said they were currently being treated for depression — higher than any other demographic tracked.

The Penn State study used initial survey data from middle school and high school students who were part of a substance use prevention program in Pennsylvania and Iowa. The program was run in rural and semi-rural areas. After these students graduated high school, 1,988 of them were surveyed at ages 19, 23 and 25 to gauge their mental health and ongoing relationships with their parents.

The researchers use the term “parental warmth” to refer broadly to supportive, responsive and affectionate parenting. In the surveys given to young adults, this meant asking questions about whether their mothers and fathers “let you know she/he really cares about you” and “let you know that she/he appreciates you, your ideas or the things you do.”

Regardless of the gender of the children, or whether their support came from mothers or fathers — or both, the study found that “warmth” had an immediate effect on reducing their depression risk. It also didn’t matter whether support came in person or over the phone.

The researchers noted that the transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a critical period for mental health and psychopathology. 

It’s often expected that young adults will begin to rely more on their peers and romantic partners than parents, but the Gallup poll indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic stifled the development of these relationships in young adults. Daily experiences of sadness, worry and anger were highest among people under 30 years old and those with lower incomes. Young adults also reported that they were more dependent on social activities to sustain positive moods than older Americans, who needed less social time to feel enjoyment and happiness in their lives.

The Penn State study, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, is “good news” for parents because it shows them the importance of remaining close with their children and supporting their growth as adults, Fosco said. 

“All of our attention goes into parenting kids when they are at home, but the reality is that young adults spend a lot of time with their parents — more now than in past generations,” he said. “We don’t know enough about the role that parents play in supporting success in their adult children’s lives. It’s an important time to support them, and we’re still learning about how we can do our best as parents.”