Background: Individual differences in depressive symptoms have been linked with social skill deficits in adults and children, yet empirical studies on adolescents are lacking. The present research examines age and gender differences in nonverbal behaviour between mildly depressed and nondepressed (pre-) adolescents during conversations with an adult (study 1) and a same-aged peer (study 2). Both studies also examine whether conversation partners respond differently to mildly depressed versus nondepressed (pre)adolescents.
Methods: Study 1 reports on observations of conversations of 9–15-year-old children (n = 122) with a female adult partner. Study 2 reports findings of observations of 12–17-year-old adolescents (n = 154) in conversation with same-age, same-sex peers.
Results: Both studies show gender and/or age effects in gazing, smiling and backchannel behaviours that indicate that as adolescents mature they increasingly behave according to gender-specific display rules. While talking to an adult, depressed (pre-)adolescents and the adult partner differed in backchannel behaviours. While talking to peers, only depressed adolescent girls showed less gazing towards the partner during listening. Moreover, adolescents smiled less often towards depressed than nondepressed partners.
Conclusions: Gender-specific development of nonverbal behaviour may help to understand the development of gender differences in depression in adolescence. Females who fail to exhibit other-oriented social skills may be particularly at risk for depressive symptoms.