Trinity College Dublin: Growing Up in Ireland report documents mental health outcomes for 13-year olds

Growing up in Ireland today published a new report which documents the mental-health and well-being of the 13-years-olds in the study and examines factors that were associated with these outcomes.

Turning 13 is a key stage in the lives of Cohort ’98 as they transitioned from primary to secondary school and entered puberty, all in the context of the Great Recession of 2008-2013. The report is based on interviews with over 7,400 children and their families, conducted first when the children were 9 years of age, and again when the children were 13 years old.

Today’s report provides detailed findings and extensive insights into the mental health and well-being of 13-year-olds, in the context of how they were doing at age 9. The results look at the role of puberty, relationships with parents and friends/the peer group and family economic factors on outcomes like symptoms of depression and anxiety, engagement in antisocial behaviour, and use of alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoking.

In general, the majority of 13-year olds were doing well, but there were some different patterns for boys and girls

88% of 13-year olds were not displaying any significant levels of difficulty in terms of social emotional well-being, reported upon by parents.
Overall, 16% of 13-year-olds rated themselves as having symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of ‘depression’; girls (18%) were significantly more likely than boys (14%) to score above the cut-off for ‘depression’

Engagement in anti-social behaviour was relatively rare at 13-years, although 13% had not paid the correct fare on public transport, and 7% had stolen from a shop, at least once.
Multiple occurrences of anti-social behaviour were rare within the sample and overall 7% of the sample had previously been in trouble with the Gardaí. Boys engaged in more anti-social behaviour than girls.* Nine percent of the 13-year-olds had previously smoked a cigarette, but only 2% of the sample currently smoked; about half of these smoked every day. There was no difference between boys and girls in terms of smoking.
1.4% of 13-year-olds had tried cannabis (boys more likely than girls), 2.9% had sniffed glue/paints/petrol to get high (girls more likely than boys) and less than 1% had tried ‘harder’ drugs (no differences between boys and girls).
15.5% of the sample had previously ever had an alcoholic drink (other than just a few sips) and boys were more likely than girls to have previously had an alcoholic drink. However, only half of these – 7% of the entire sample – had consumed a whole drink the previous year. Less than 1% of the sample had a drink at least once a month; and 3.5% of the sample had been drunk at least once.

Outcomes tended to remain stable from 9 years to 13 years…

80% of the sample displayed no significant difficulties at either 9 or 13 years, while about 7% were categorised as having difficulties at both 9 and 13. This is the group about which we should be most concerned, as their social, emotional and behavioural problems were likely becoming more entrenched.
Among the remaining 12% of the sample, difficulties were either newly emerging at age 13 (5%) or difficulties had dissipated between ages 9 and 13 (7%).
Several factors distinguished the 80% who had no difficulties at either wave (low risk) from the 7% of 13-year-olds who were ‘at risk’ at both waves (high risk group), and from those who experienced increased risk between waves (5%).
For girls, factors associated with being in the ‘low risk’ group included higher maternal education levels, having more than one friend, and having low conflict with mothers and fathers.
Being a perpetrator of bullying was associated with an increase in girls’ risk between 9 and 13 years. In addition, experiencing any change in household structure between 9 and 13 was associated with an increase in risk for poorer outcomes.
Girls who experienced a transition from a single-parent to a two-parent household between waves were almost ten times more likely to be the in a ‘high risk’ group than a ‘low risk’ group.
For boys, factors associated with being in the ‘low risk’ group were: Low conflict with mothers and fathers, having than one friend and higher maternal education and higher income levels.
Factors associated with being in a ‘high risk’ group for boys included: Having older friends and experiencing any household transition between waves; where boys who experienced household transitions were two to four times more likely (depending on the nature of the transition) to be in a ‘high risk’ group than a ‘low risk’ group.

Timing of puberty mattered …

The timing of onset of puberty for boys was characterised based on changes to their voices; the timing of onset of puberty for girls was based upon age of having their first period.
Early maturing girls had poorer outcomes than girls who were either on time or late maturers: these girls had higher depressive scores and higher anti-social behaviour. They were also more likely to have smoked cigarettes and consumed alcohol.
Being an early maturer was not as clearly associated with boys’ outcomes; in fact the late maturing boys had significantly higher depressive scores but lower anti-social behaviour scores than both the on-time and early maturing boys. The early maturing boys were also significantly more likely than on-time and late maturing boys to have consumed alcohol, but not smoked cigarettes.

…. but relationships with friends and parents were more important

However, once other factors, such as quality of relationships with parents and friends were taken into account, the effect of pubertal timing was weakened. What might matter more is how early or late maturation effects the relationships that teenagers have with their parents and peers, and in turn how these relationships influence social-emotional and behavioural outcomes.
The most important predictors of difficulties such as anxious and depressed mood for girls and boys related to problems with peer relationships – involvement in bullying, as a victim or a perpetrator, and poorer quality peer relationships were linked to more difficulties. The picture was less clear in terms of the number of friends; for girls, having fewer friends was associated with greater difficulties, while for boys having more friends was associated with greater difficulties. Where friends were older, girls reported higher levels of depressed mood, but this was not the case for boys.
Having more friends, older friends, being a perpetrator of bullying at age 9, and higher levels of alienation from peers were all associated with higher levels of anti-social behaviour, for both boys and girls.
Smoking, drinking and experimenting with drugs was also predicted by factors associated with the friend group, perhaps unsurprisingly, as these are behaviours that typically occur with friends.
Conflict and low levels of closeness with mothers (more so than with fathers) were important predictors of higher depressed mood among girls. Girls who reported that their mothers and fathers granted them autonomy and freedom had lower levels of depressed mood.
For boys’ depressed mood, again parent-child conflict had a key role, although it was conflict with fathers, rather than with mothers that mattered more. Increases in fathers being responsive to their sons’ needs across waves appeared to be protective, as these boys had lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms. Fewer difficulties also emerged when boys perceived that their mothers granted them appropriate autonomy. Thus, for both boys and girls, autonomy-granting was a protective factor against depressed mood.
For boys, having had high levels of mother-child conflict and father-child conflict predicted higher conduct problems, while low parent-child closeness predicted girls’ conduct problems and anti-social behaviour. Mothers’ who granted their daughters more autonomy had lower antisocial behaviour, while fathers’ autonomy-granting was linked to lower conduct problems among boys.

What can be done?

Having good quality relationships with peers is an important protective factor (rather than having many friends, which in some contexts might elevate the risk for poorer outcomes). Considering how positive peer relationships can be promoted may be worthwhile, as well as possibly providing skill training to support youth through peer conflict and rejection.
Maternal education, income quintile and household structure demonstrated some noteworthy associations with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. But these factors were not strong and consistent predictors of mental health outcomes for youth. This suggests that social-emotional and behavioural difficulties can affect youth across all social contexts, and it is not just those in contexts of disadvantage who are affected. This suggests that there is need for universal intervention and prevention programmes that can be targeted towards all youth.
Parent-child conflict has negative consequences for youth outcomes, and the findings in particular highlight the potentially distinct contribution of mothers and fathers for boys’ and girls’ outcomes.

According to the study’s author, Dr. Elizabeth Nixon

Helping parents to understand the teenage transition and how they can appropriately support adolescents’ sense of autonomy is likely to yield positive outcomes, both in terms of the parent-child relationship and in terms of youth outcomes.

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