Childhood adversity increases risk of mental health issues in adolescence, study finds

Childhood adversity increases risk of mental health issues in adolescence, study finds

by Freya Lucas

April 27, 2021

Experiencing childhood adversity, such as parental conflict, the death of a close family member or experiencing a serious injury, before the age of nine has been associated with mental health problems in late adolescence in new research conducted by RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

 

Despite the correlation, researchers also found that improving the relationship between parents and children could prevent subsequent mental health problems, even in children who have experienced severe adversities. 

 

The research also indicated that improving a child’s self-esteem and increasing their levels of physical activity can help to reduce the risk of developing mental health problems.

 

Recently published in Psychological Medicine, the study used data from over 6,000 children in Ireland who took part in the Growing Up in Ireland study. The results showed that just over a quarter of children had experienced childhood adversity before the age of nine.

 

By late adolescence, almost one in five of the young people were experiencing significant mental health difficulties. 15 per cent had developed internalising problems, such as anxiety or depression, and 7 per cent had developed externalising problems, such as conduct problems or hyperactivity.

 

Those who experienced childhood adversity were significantly more likely to report mental health problems in late adolescence.

 

Parent-child conflict explained 35 per cent of the relationship between childhood adversity and late adolescent externalising problems. The conflict also accounted for 42 per cent of the relationship between childhood adversity and internalising problems.

 

The child’s self-esteem (also called self-concept) explained 27 per cent of the relationship between child adversity and later internalising problems. The child’s level of physical activity explained 9 per cent of the relationship between childhood adversity and later internalising problems.

 

“Children who experience multiple or severe life events are at an increased risk of mental health problems, but not all of those exposed to such events develop such problems,” lead researcher Dr Colm Healy explained. 

 

“Among children who have experienced adversity, we found that reducing conflict between the parent and child and fostering a warm relationship can protect them from a broad range of later mental health problems,” Professor Mary Cannon, the study’s principal investigator added.

 

“We also found that improving a child’s self-esteem and encouraging physical activity may also be useful intervention targets for preventing difficulties with mood and anxiety following earlier adversity. On the whole, this is a hopeful story that points towards effective interventions to improve outcomes for children who had experienced difficulties early in life.”

 

To access the findings, please see here.

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