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Depressed adolescents gain little benefit from eye contact with their parents (although connection is so very important)

Eye contact between parents and children improves their mood and increases feelings of connectedness on both sides; but not in the case of depressed adolescents, Mirjam Wever discovered. Where the parent-child bond has been disrupted, it can be strengthened not only with therapy for the child but also with help for the parents. Wever defends her PhD dissertation on 11 January.

Cover of Mirjam Wever’s dissertation

Mirjam Wever worked intensively with many families both with and without a depressed adolescent. ‘I heard from all sides how everyone felt about the situation. It really upset me when adolescents said things like “I feel it would be better if I’d never been born”, or when I saw how powerless their parents felt.’

The neuroscientist is one of the four PhD candidates who worked with more than a hundred families on research into parent-child contacts and connectedness. Participants completed questionnaires, wrote diaries and came to the lab for a whole day for interaction tasks and again for individual tasks in the scanner. ‘In nearly all the families, both parents took part in the research, which is exceptional. Regrettably, most parent-child research only focuses on the mother.’

Videos where your child looks directly at you or looks away

For her dissertation, Wever analysed some of the large amount of data. She concentrated on eye contact and empathy. ‘For example, parents and children watched videos where their own child or parent or an unfamiliar child or adult faced the camera with either a direct gaze or an averted gaze, and parents were asked to imagine that their child was suffering in some way or being excluded at school.’ All this was done in an MRI scanner, which showed the activity in the brain regions associated with empathy and connectedness.

Strong effects of eye contact…

A striking result was that adolescents with depression benefit much less from the connecting and mood-boosting effect that eye contact usually has between children and parents. Wever: ‘Eye contact between people in a positive context normally improves the mood of both of them. They also experience more connectedness with each other. And making eye contact in turn elicits even more eye contact; this relates to attracting and maintaining attention. We see this not only with eye contact between parents and children, but also between people who don’t know each other.’

…Except in adolescents with depression

The results are different, however, if an adolescent with depression looks at an unfamiliar person or one of the parents. ‘Depression means that the adolescent’s mood is usually lower and it isn’t improved by eye contact. The feelings of connectedness with the parent actually decrease with more prolonged eye contact. Although these adolescents make just as much eye contact, its effect on them appears to be blunted.’ The connection between parents and children is tremendously important for healthy development. However, in families with an adolescent who suffers from depression, this connectedness is particularly under pressure.

Parents can also be helped to repair the bond

Depressed adolescents will often withdraw from their parents. An important aspect in the treatment of these adolescents is to address their difficulties in the interpersonal domain, writes Wever in her dissertation. ‘Additionally, it can be helpful to also focus on the parents, and offer them tools to repair the parent-child bond.’ If parents learn about the difficulties their child experiences on a daily basis, they can be more empathic. This may help them to break the negative spiral of alienation and withdrawal from each other, which so often occurs. For example, the recently developed course for parents Samen Sterk (‘together strong’) provides them with tools to strengthen the bond with their child. Wever: ‘One of the main elements is that parents should always try to maintain contact with their child. And if you’ve offered to do something together ten times and been rejected, for example, you should just ask again the eleventh time.'

Eye contact is crucial for everyone

Even for parents of adolescents without depression – in fact, for everyone – Wever has some advice after her research on eye contact. ‘The longer people look at each other, the more connectedness and empathy they feel towards each other in general. Changes in our society form an obstacle to this. It’s not only children who constantly look at their screens while their parents are talking to them; the parents themselves are increasingly absorbed in their screens.’ What Wever wants to say is: try going back to actually looking into each other’s eyes more often.

Emotional maltreatment

Wever’s research is part of the NWO Vici project RE-PAIR: Unravelling the Impact of Emotional Maltreatment on the Developing Brain of Prof. Bernet Elzinga. Wever also investigated the effect of eye contact in parents who, for example, had often been belittled or ‘not seen’ by their own parents during childhood. The ones who had experienced more of this kind of childhood emotional maltreatment showed less mood improvement after eye contact with their children and with unfamiliar others. Wever: ‘It’s possible that eye contact means something different for them, for example because humiliations in childhood often began with eye contact.

Mirjam Wever defends her dissertation I see you: Insights into the neural and affective signatures of connectedness between parents and adolescents on 11 January 2024.

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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