After finishing her Bachelor Psychology, Master Behavioural Data Science and the Research Master Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, Myrthe Veenman transferred to Leiden University for her PhD. Within the NSMD consortium, as part of the team Communicating Networks, Myrthe studies family relations and adolescent depression.
While focusing on statistical methods for Psychology during her Masters, Myrthe was especially interested in the combination of statistics and clinical practice that this PhD project offers. During the 1,5 years that she has been working on the project, she has experienced the difficulties of translating statistical methods to clinical practice. “Some statistical methods require a lot of information per individual. It is a challenge to gather this information and not burden the individuals participating in research too much.”
Her promoter, professor Bernet Elzinga, had already been working together with colleagues Loes Janssen, Mirjam Wever, Lisanne van Houtum and Wilma Wentholt on data collection for the RE-PAIR project, that will also form the basis for Myrthe’s research. “In RE-PAIR, adolescents, aged 11 to 17, and their parents participated in four stages. Especially the third stage, where we followed adolescents and parents for two weeks, is important for my study.” In a method called Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), adolescents reported their momentary affect states (happy, sad, irritated, and relaxed) and answered questions about their contact four times a day for two weeks. “When I started my PhD, the RE-PAIR team was still collecting data and looking for adolescents diagnosed with depression and their parents that were willing to participate in the study. I helped with EMA data collection for this sample.” In total, 114 families participated in RE-PAIR. In 34 of these families, the adolescent was diagnosed with depression.
A family system
To study family relations, Myrthe started investigating statistical methods that could be applied to the RE-PAIR data. As a start, she focused on the interrelatedness of the momentary affect states of adolescents and their parents in the non-diagnosed sample. “Data with information over a period of time, such as reported affect states over two weeks, are different than data containing information about one time point, such as the reported affect state on one day. Family data is even more complex. In our study, we have 56 ratings of four affect states per adolescent, mother and father. How are we going to use that information to say something about how adolescents and parents are related? We needed a method that could show us how the affect states of adolescents and their parents are connected over time.”
Previous studies have mainly focused on the relation between adolescents and one parent or only had the possibility to look at one specific negative affect, such as sadness. “Therefore, it remained unclear how different affect states of adolescents and parents were interrelated. If I am irritated, does this influence my child? If my child is sad, how does it affect me? Adolescents influence their parents, and parents influence each other and their child. We call this a family system.”
We may think we know how we influence and respond to our child or to our parents, but studies have shown there is a discrepancy in perception between parents and their child. “For instance, while parents reported not having expressed criticism towards their child, children reported that their parent had been critical.”
As a start, Myrthe used networks to illustrate how affect states of adolescents and parents are related at the same moment and over time. The network showed for instance, how irritation of fathers was positively related to irritation of adolescents, indicating that if fathers reported to be more irritated, adolescents were likely to report to be more irritated at the next moment in time.
“A next step is to investigate whether these family relations are different for adolescents diagnosed with depression. From previous studies, we already know that the frequency of the negative affect states, sadness and irritation, is higher in families with an adolescent diagnosed with depression. Adolescents and their parents reported to be sadder and more irritated compared to non-depressed adolescents and their parents. We want to know if the relations and the strength of these relations between the affect states of adolescents and parents do also differ.” Myrthe acknowledges that it is important to also look at families separately: “We cannot assume that adolescents experience depression in an identical way and that all families are the same.”
Next to affect states, it is important to look at the contact between adolescents and their parents. During the EMA, adolescents and their parents evaluated their contact and parenting style. “In addition to the four standard questionnaires, adolescents and their parents received a questionnaire when they had been together for ten minutes or longer. In these questionnaires, adolescents and parents were asked if they had been in contact and how they had perceived this contact.” Currently, Myrthe is looking at ways to combine this information with the information about the affect states.
At the end of her PhD, Myrthe hopes to have gained more insight into adolescent depression. “Parents of adolescents diagnosed with depression are often wondering how they can help their child. Hopefully, my PhD can provide a little bit of guidance on that.”
If you are a parent seeking help for your adolescent diagnosed with depression in The Netherlands and wondering how you can help your child, this might be an interesting resource for you: https://www.re-pair.org/online-cursus-samen-sterk.html