The present study examined the role of perceived control in diathesis-stress and transactional models of depression amongst Canadian and Chinese adolescents. Overall, the results suggest that both diathesis-stress and transactional models are applicable to Canadian adolescents. For Chinese adolescents, however, transactional, but not diathesis-stress models of perceived control, predict depressive symptomology. Such findings may reflect culturally-relevant differences in the etiology of depression.
When examining the diathesis-stress model amongst Canadian adolescents, results of time-lagged, idiographic analyses indicated that greater dependent interpersonal stress interacted with low perceived control to predict increases in depressive symptoms. While children are prone to experience depressive symptoms as a direct consequence of negative events (Nolen-Hoeksema et al. 1992
), Turner and Cole (1994
) posit that adolescents’ ability to utilize abstract reasoning increases the likelihood of developing stable cognitive vulnerabilities that are activated in the presence of stress. Thus, examining perceived control within a diathesis-stress framework becomes increasingly necessary amongst adolescents as such individuals are more likely to exhibit feelings of powerlessness in response to stressful life events which then leads to the onset of depressive symptoms. While these findings are in line with previous research examining the relationship between perceived control and depressive symptoms (e.g., Margaro and Weisz 2006
; Weisz et al. 2001
), the present study is an expansion in that it prospectively delineates the temporal relationship between perceived control, dependent interpersonal stress, and depressive symptoms.
Given that significant gender differences emerge in adolescence with regards to both level of depressive symptoms and number of depressive episodes (Hankin et al. 2007
), we examined whether gender moderated the relationship between perceived control and dependent interpersonal stress to predict changes in depressive symptoms over time. Results indicated that boys, but not girls, who reported lower perceived control reported higher levels of depressive symptoms following the occurrence of dependent interpersonal stress. These findings are interesting to consider given that girls typically report greater depressive symptoms as compared to boys (Hankin et al. 2007
), however, research examining gender-specific conflict resolution styles may provide a prism with which to better understand these results. In contrast to adolescent girls, boys who exhibit a diminished perception of control are more likely to act aggressively in response to interpersonal problems (Lindeman et al. 1997
). The potentially violent response may be a physical manifestation of feeling powerless, and unfortunately, often exacerbates both the initial stressor and subsequent depressive symptoms (de Wied et al. 2007
). With regards to girls who reported low levels of perceived control, the results suggest that the occurrence of interpersonal stress did not trigger or activate maladaptive responses that would serve to amplify interpersonal stress and depressive symptomology.
While diathesis-stress frameworks are a useful tool to understand cognitive vulnerability to depression, such models make the assumption that individuals are passive respondents to stress, with stress activating depressogenic perceptions in vulnerable individuals (e.g., Shih et al. 2009
). In contrast, the transactional perspective asserts that individuals have the capacity to influence their environments by shaping the type of stressors they experience (Hammen 1991
). While Hammen’s (1991
) initial research on stress generation examined this phenomenon in adult women suffering from depression, more recent research has replicated these findings with adolescents (e.g., Harkness et al. 2008
; Rudolph 2008
). At the same time, less research with adolescent samples has examined whether cognitive vulnerability factors contribute to stress generation (for exceptions see Shahar and Priel 2003
; Shih et al. 2009
). The present study, to our knowledge, is the first to demonstrate that (a) low perceived control contributes to a greater occurrence of dependent interpersonal stress (i.e., stress generation) and (b) greater dependent interpersonal stress mediates the relationship between low perceived control and higher levels of depressive symptoms. Given that the model examines the time-lagged relationship between dependent interpersonal stress and depressive symptoms, it more clearly identifies the mechanism through which perceived control exerts its impact. In doing so, the results suggest that individuals who feel that they cannot exert an impact on important outcomes in their lives contribute to greater interpersonal conflict which in turn, results in higher levels of depressive symptoms.
With regards to the Chinese adolescents, in line with our hypothesis, the transactional model predicted significantly higher levels of depressive symptomology. In contrast to our hypothesis, the diathesis-stress model examining perceived control was not a predictor of fluctuations in such symptoms. These results may be the product of two sweeping changes that are occurring concurrently throughout mainland China. First, China’s industrial growth has placed a heightened emphasis on education as it is viewed as a means to ensure future financial stability for both the individual and family. However, with less than 30% of students gaining admittance to university given the pervasive university shortage, it has resulted in (a) increased peer competition, (b) strict school discipline and obedience, (c) less recreational time, and (d) high expectations from teachers and parents (Liu et al. 2000
). The intense pressure to succeed has likely diminished adolescents’ beliefs that they control and shape the major decisions in their lives. Further, as approximately 7 million students do not gain admittance to the university despite committed and concerted efforts, many may feel that the process is hopeless. Second, historically, China has been a collectivistic society emphasizing the needs of the ingroup and fulfillment of social roles. However, China’s industrial growth has resulted in younger generations embracing more individualistic and materialistic values (e.g., Auerbach et al. 2009a
). Such a shift in values may be resulting in interpersonal tensions with parents and teachers as an individual’s goal may no longer be subordinate to the collective aim. Taken together, the results from the present study indicate that feelings of diminished control lead individuals to contribute, rather than react, to the occurrence of interpersonal stress, and thus, subsequently elevate levels of depressive symptomology.
While there are a number of strengths of the current study including the use of a multi-wave, longitudinal design and examining hypotheses with both Canadian and Chinese adolescents, it also important to recognize limitations. First, the current study utilized self-report measures to examine perceived control, stress, and depressive symptoms. While each of the measures utilized possesses strong reliability and validity, self-report measures are subject to a number of response biases. Given such a methodological shortcoming, future research would benefit from assessing cognitive vulnerability and symptoms with more sophisticated assessment techniques including semi-structured interviews, peer or parent ratings, and direct behavioral assessments. Second, while every effort was made to conduct parallel studies in Canada and China, scheduling difficulties emerged which resulted in a different number of waves as well as different time intervals between assessments. Third, the self-report measures utilized in our assessment of Chinese adolescents were translated from existing measures developed primarily for Western samples. Future research examining samples from mainland China would benefit from using and developing indigenous measures to assess both symptoms and personality characteristics. Last, the present study examined the relationship between perceived control and subsequent levels of dependent interpersonal stress, however, it did not assess independent stress. Thus, future research would benefit from determining whether perceived control was related to dependent as opposed to independent stress in order to provide a stronger examination of stress generation.
In sum, the present study examines theoretically-driven models of cognitive vulnerability to depression in Canadian and Chinese adolescents. As differences between the Canadian and Chinese samples emerged when examining the role of perceived control, it suggests that the etiology of depression may vary. Whereas Chinese adolescents have a tendency to contribute to the manifestation of interpersonal stressors and subsequent depressive symptoms, Canadian adolescents seem to both generate and react to stressors in their lives. Ultimately, this may prove to have important clinical implications for the development of effective intervention and prevention programs as it provides greater insight into the development of depressive symptoms.