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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Research Matters


By Erika Manczak, PhD
Assistant Professor




It is well-accepted that having a warm, caring parent is associated with positive outcomes for children and adolescents, including fewer depressive symptoms (Schwartz et al., 2013) and better stress-relevant physiological functioning (Carroll et al., 2013). But how might other aspects of parenting and early relationships affect youths' mental and physical health? In one area of my research, I've been investigating how structural aspects of relationships—like the consistency of interpersonal interactions—also predict youth profiles, above and beyond traditional markers of "good parenting" like parental warmth.

In one study, I examined whether inconsistency in dimensions of parent-youth interactions predicted adolescents' stimulated cytokine responses, which is an index of immune system processes reflecting how strongly blood cells are primed to respond to threat. Utilizing daily diary reporting, I found that greater inconsistency in the quality and timing of interactions predicted larger (more exaggerated) cytokine responses in adolescents a year later, even when the average quality and frequency of interactions did not (Manczak, Leigh, Chin, & Chen, 2018). In a second study, greater inconsistency in the quality of parent-youth interactions was related to greater emotion dysregulation and greater emotional variability in adolescents, again above and beyond broader features of parent-child relationship quality (Manczak, Dougherty, & Chen, 2018). In these ways, having an inconsistent parent was more strongly associated with less optimal immune and emotion outcomes than having a negative or absent parent, suggesting that consistency may be as—or even more—important as the quality of relationships.

I have been especially interested in immune and emotion regulation processes because both are strongly associated with depression. As a new faculty member at DU, my lab is getting ready to launch a study examining these structural facets of relationships as predictors of depressive symptoms in adolescents. In the Biology and Adolescent Social Experiences (BASE) study, we will be looking at consistency not only within relationships with parents, but also within relationships with close friends, romantic partners, and classmates. Specifically, we will be exploring whether inconsistency in these different types of relationships predicts higher levels of chronic inflammation and more pro-inflammatory gene expression in adolescents, and, in turn, whether these immune processes relate to higher levels of depressive symptoms. We hope that this study will shed light on how early relationships "get under the skin" to predict important mental health outcomes in adolescents and will identify novel aspects of relationships to consider when treating adolescents for depression.

Learn more about Dr. Manczak's Biology, Environments, and Mood Studies (BEAMS) Lab here.