For abused teen girls, suicidal thoughts linked to bond with mom

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A new study links high degrees of mother-daughter conflict to suicide risk in abused teenage girls.

Among adolescents who suffered maltreatment as children, not all entertain suicidal thoughts. So what can we learn about those who do? Researchers have found an answer by looking at the relationships between teenage girls and their mothers.

The study, which appears in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, shows a stark correlation between both poor mother-daughter relationships and high degrees of conflict with the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

“Our findings suggest that disruptions to a positive mother-teen relationship are one reason why children who experienced abuse or neglect are at risk for suicide as teens,” says lead author Elizabeth Handley, a research assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center. The findings highlight the importance of relationship-based interventions for vulnerable youths.

The team tested three distinct variables that linked earlier maltreatment in childhood to suicidal thoughts for adolescent girls:

  1. Mother-daughter relationship quality
  2. Mother-daughter conflict
  3. Adolescent depressive symptoms

“We know from decades of research that a warm, nurturing, and consistent relationship between mothers and their children is critical for many aspects of healthy development. This continues to be true even in adolescence, when teens spend more time with their friends and less time at home with family,” says Handley.

The study included 164 socio-economically disadvantaged, depressed, adolescent girls (average age 14) and their mothers. Of the adolescents, 66.3 percent were African American, 21.3 percent white, and 14 percent Latina.

According to the researchers, relationship-based interventions are a promising approach to depression treatment for maltreated youth, such as interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents, which focuses on the interpersonal context of depression. Attachment-based family therapy has also proven useful in reducing suicidal thoughts among teenagers by strengthening the functioning of the family and the parent-adolescent attachment relationship.

Maltreatment includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and emotional and physical neglect. Among the study participants, 51.8 percent of adolescents indicated a history of at least one form of maltreatment.

As expected, the researchers found that rates of suicidal thoughts and recurrent thoughts of death were higher among teenage girls with a history of maltreatment than those without: 11.7 percent of non-maltreated, depressed adolescents indicated suicidal ideation, compared to 26.8 percent of maltreated, depressed adolescents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10 to 24 in the United States (accidental death is the leading cause). Adolescent girls in general are more likely than their male counterparts to have suicidal thoughts.

Given the scientific evidence that the more severe and pervasive the suicidal thoughts, the greater the likelihood of suicide attempt, understanding the cause of suicidal thoughts is critical for effective youth suicide prevention and intervention design.

Additional researchers from Mt. Hope Family Center and the University of Minnesota contributed to the study. The National Institute on Mental Health funded the research.

If you need help for yourself or someone else, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Source: University of Rochester