A new Norwegian study suggests small children who grow up in a stressful environment are more vulnerable than others to develop emotional problems.
Researchers discovered maternal distress symptoms, family stress and lack of social support in the child’s pre-school environment leads to an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms when these children reach 12-13 years old.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental problems for children and adolescents.
Ten to twenty percent of all children and young people will, in the course of growing up, display enough symptoms of anxiety and depression to qualify for a diagnosis.
In the study, Evalill Karevold followed more than 900 families from when the children were 18 months old through to adolescence.
The findings are based on maternal and child report of the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression, plus reports from the mother about risk and protective factors in the family environment.
A main finding highlights the importance of environmental factors for families with children less than 5 years of age.
In addition, the results show that girls are more likely to develop emotional problems at 12-13 years of age than boys.
Research indicates that girls tend to churn over problems and events more than boys. In addition, early puberty in girls is thought to make them extra vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms, says Evalill Karevold.
Timid children have a greater risk for anxiety and depression
Another discovery shows that shy children generally have a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression than children who are not shy.
If timid boys are also very inactive, the risk of developing emotional difficulties is almost three times as high compared with shy boys with a high level of activity. This does not seem to be the case for girls.
The results indicate that there can be two central developmental paths to emotional problems in early adolescence. One path goes through the child’s temperament, especially temperamental emotionality (tendency to react quickly and intensely).
A different course goes through the environmental factors that are present when the children are at pre-school age.
It is important to be aware of families who are struggling with multiple burdens, and who have little support or network around them when the children are young.
Having pre-school aged children is believed to be a particularly vulnerable period to be exposed to maternal symptoms, so it is especially important to identify and help mothers who are struggling with anxiety and depression as early as possible.
Health clinics can play a central role in spotting families who are struggling, and a lot more emphasis should be made to build up mental health expertise here, says Karevold.