Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Family System and Depressive Symptoms during the College Years: Triangulation, Parental Differential Treatment, and Sibling Warmth as Predictors

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Family System and Depressive Symptoms during the College Years: Triangulation, Parental Differential Treatment, and Sibling Warmth as Predictors

Article excerpt

Emerging adulthood has been understudied as a unique context for the increased risk of depressive symptoms and the opportunities it presents for family systems-based intervention (Rohde, Lewinsohn, Klein, Seeley, & Gau, 2013). This is despite statistics indicating that the incidence of major depressive disorder peaks among individuals in their 20s, with the prevalence in 18- 29-year-olds being three times higher than that of individuals aged 60 years or older (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Kuwabara, Van Voorhees, Gollan, & Alexander, 2007). Considering that many emerging adults, including college students, experience a major life transition when they leave their home and family (Arnett, 2000; Conger & Little, 2010), it is surprising that few studies use a family systems approach to investigate the impact of both parental and sibling relationships on depressive symptoms during these transitional years. This may be one reason the possibility of therapeutically working with emerging adults as well as their families is often overlooked.

The rate of college students diagnosed with depression increased from 10% in 2000 to 15% in 2006 (American College Health Association, 2008; Mahmoud, Staten, Hall, & Lennie, 2012) and suicide, which is related to depression, is the second leading cause of death on college campuses (Cukrowicz et al., 2011). College students may be especially vulnerable to subclinical depressive symptoms (symptoms that do not reach criteria for diagnosis or fall below the threshold of clinical significance) that often go undiagnosed and untreated (Cukrowicz et al., 2011; Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010). As the onset of depression in adolescence confers a high risk of recurrence by age 24 (Fergusson & Woodward, 2002; Sheets et al., 2013), it is important to continue to follow and support emerging adults who experience depressive symptoms.

Family systems therapy involving multiple-family members as often as possible may be an effective treatment for this population. However, there seems to be a considerable lack of studies examining family systems therapy models in the treatment of adult depression (Hollon et al., 2006). The purpose of this study was to provide empirical evidence that perceptions of family processes and the quality of sibling relationships would be associated with depressive symptoms for the emerging adult population.

The perception (both children's and parents') of parental differential treatment (PDT), defined as differences in how one or both parents behave toward one child relative to other children in the family (Finzi-Dottan & Cohen, 2010), has been linked to poor sibling relationship quality and depressive symptoms during adolescence and emerging adulthood (Jensen, Whiteman, Fingerman, & Birditt, 2013; Richmond, Stocker, & Rienks, 2005; Shanahan, McHale, Crouter, & Osgood, 2008). Jensen and colleagues found that the higher levels of PDT were related to lower sibling intimacy and greater discrepancies in treatment were associated with more depressive symptoms, in a sample of young adult siblings. The study by Jensen and colleagues is one of very few examining PDT in young adulthood and we hoped to extend this area of research by examining PDT and its implications within the context of the larger family system.

Using Bowen theory as a framework, we wanted to investigate whether parent-child triangulation (Bowen, 1978) may be related to PDT and thereby to sibling warmth and depressive symptoms in the college-aged population. It is possible that the triangulation of children into parental conflict and the resultant loyalty conflicts (Krasner & Joyce, 1995) experienced by the children creates the perception of increased PDT by one or both parents. Triangulation into parental conflict has been linked to depression among children (Wang & Crane, 2001), adolescents (Buehler, Franck & Cook, 2009; Grych, Raynor, & Fosco, 2004), and college students (Sabatelli & Anderson, 1991). …

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