Teenage girls encounter more "stressors" in life, especially in their interpersonal relationships, than boys -- and they react more strongly to those pressures, accounting in part for their higher levels of depression, the study suggests.
"Girls are getting a double hit," says Benjamin L. Hankin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, one of the study's researchers.
"They are experiencing more interpersonal stress, and when they experience more of the stress, they exhibit more depressive symptoms than boys do," he says.
For years, Hankin says, experts have known that by midpuberty -- age 13, or so -- more girls than boys experience depression.
But they have not been able to pinpoint why.
Other research has found that teenage girls report more stressors in life than do teenage boys, but researchers have disagreed on whether the girls react more strongly to stressors and become more depressed, Hankin says.
Hankins' study looked at 538 eighth and 10th-grade students, aged 13 to 18 (average age: 14.9), from 18 Chicago-area schools.
The students were asked to record their "worst event" of the day in their diaries every day for a week, at three different time points -- the study launch, and six and 12 months later.
The diary method is considered superior to research that asks students to recall stressors from the past, Hankin says; it tends to be more accurate.
Besides describing this "worst event," students said what made it so bad, and what they did in response.
"Worst events" included getting kicked out of school, failing a quiz, arguing with a parent, getting mad at a girlfriend or boyfriend, and other problems.
The researchers later evaluated how stressful the events were and classified them as interpersonal (involving interaction between the teen and another person -- such as family, peer, or romantic partner) or achievement (involving academics or athletic performance).
Hankin's team also looked at the boys' and girls' depressive symptoms and their self-reported use of alcohol.
Interpersonal Stressors vs. Achievement Stressors
The girls reported more interpersonal stressors, while the boys had more achievement stressors.
"In an average week, the girls experienced twice as many interpersonal stressors as the boys did," Hankin says.
While the boys averaged 0.50 interpersonal stressors a week, the girls averaged one -- about twice as many.
However, the boys experienced 0.24 achievement stressors each week, while the girls reported just 0.16.
The girls were more adversely affected, too, Hankin found. For the same stressor, the girls reacted with more depression than the boys, Hankin says.
Looking at interpersonal stressors alone and the teens' reactions to them "explains 30% of why the girls are more depressed than the boys," Hankin says.
Genders respond in different ways to stress, the study also found.
"If there is a romantic fight between a boy and a girl, on average, a girl will respond with more depression," Hankin says. "A boy will go distract himself," Hankin says, perhaps playing basketball or doing some other activity.
No gender differences were found in the use of alcohol in response to stress.
Another Expert Weighs In
The study sheds light on some of the pathways that lead girls to become more depressed, says Karen D. Rudolph, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has researched the same topic.
It shows that "girls are experiencing more stress in their lives and react more strongly," she says.
For parents of girls and boys entering puberty, Hankin has this advice: "Pay attention to what our child is experiencing at home and with relationships. Be available and supportive emotionally for your child."
Be aware, Rudolph adds, that "when things go wrong, girls may be interpreting it in a catastrophic way."
For example, an argument with a friend may be viewed as the end of a friendship. But parents can step in and suggest how to heal the relationship, she says.
Hankin's study is published in the January-February issue of Child Development.
He did the work while at the University of Illinois at Chicago with his University of Illinois co-researchers, Robin Mermelstein, PhD, and Linda Roesch, MA.
SOURCES: Benjamin L. Hankin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Hankin, B. Child Development, January-February 2007, vol. 78. Karen D. Rudolph, PhD, associate professor of psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Louise Chang