Parents’ Criticism Impacts Depressed Teens More Than Appreciation; Brain Imaging Finds

ED Times
3 min readSep 14, 2023


By: Katyayani Joshi

Adolescent depression is a pressing mental health concern affecting many young individuals, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth. Parental interactions play a significant role in shaping an adolescent’s emotional well-being, yet little was known about how adolescents with depression specifically respond to feedback from their parents.

A recent study conducted by Lisanne van Houtum and her colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands aimed to shed light on this issue.

The study examined the emotional and brain responses of adolescents with depression to both negative (criticism) and positive (praise) parental feedback. The results offer valuable insights into how parental involvement could potentially aid in the treatment of adolescent depression.

Sensitivity To Parental Feedback

The study included 20 Dutch adolescents diagnosed with either dysthymia or major depressive disorder, along with 59 healthy adolescents without depression.

Both groups of adolescents and their parents were presented with one-word descriptions of personality characteristics and asked to rate them as negative, neutral, or positive in relation to the adolescents. The adolescents then underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure their brain activity.

The findings revealed that adolescents with depression had more negative self-views, as they rated positive feedback words as less applicable to themselves and negative or neutral words as more applicable compared to their healthy peers.

Interestingly, parental feedback, whether it was praise or criticism, had a significant impact on mood if it aligned with the adolescent’s self-view. This suggests that identifying and acknowledging positive characteristics valued by adolescents could play a crucial role in improving their depressed mood.

Differential Response To Criticism

While both groups experienced an improvement in mood when praise aligned with their self-view, there was a notable difference in response to criticism. Depressed adolescents were particularly sensitive to parental criticism, and when criticism matched their self-view, it resulted in a smaller increase in mood compared to healthy adolescents.

In essence, parental criticism appeared to override the positive influence of self-confirmation for adolescents with depression. This finding highlights unique challenges in dealing with criticism within this population.

Brain Activity And Emotional States

Analysis of the MRI scans provided further insights. Depressed adolescents exhibited increased brain activity in response to criticism, especially in the subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex (sgACC), a region believed to be crucial for mood regulation.

This heightened sgACC activity may signify an attempt to coordinate cognitive and emotional circuits in the brain.

Additionally, the scans showed increased activity in brain regions associated with social knowledge and memory of lived events, aligning with the observation that depressed adolescents tended to recall and internalize negative feedback more strongly.

This study underscores the importance of understanding how adolescents with depression respond to parental feedback, shedding light on the unique challenges they face in managing their self-esteem and emotional well-being.

While the small sample size and potential influence of other medical or psychiatric conditions are limitations, the findings suggest that parents may play a critical role in supporting their adolescent children’s mental health.

By identifying and acknowledging positive traits, parents can potentially contribute to the development of a positive self-view in adolescents undergoing depression, offering a promising avenue for treatment and support in this vulnerable population.

Originally published at on September 14, 2023.