Lower parent-child conflict significantly reduces risk of mental health difficulties in children exposed to adversity

Facing adversity in childhood is associated with psychopathology in adolescence, but this risk is lower in families with less parent-child conflict, according to new research. The study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, highlights the importance of the parent-child relationship.

“Adversity is common in childhood, affecting roughly 1-in-4 children. There is now a lot of evidence indicating that adversity is major risk factor for mental health difficulties in later life and it has been associated with 25-40% of cases of depression and anxiety,” said study author Colm Healy, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychiatry at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

“Interestingly (and thankfully), not all of those who experiences childhood adversity go on to have mental health difficulties. So, we were curious about what factors might increases or decrease the risk of a mental health difficulties if a child has experienced adversity.”

“For our investigation we choose to focus on three major factors: the parent-child relationship (conflict and positive experiences), how the child feels about themselves (also known as self-esteem or self-concept) and whether the child participates in hobbies.”

The researchers examined data from 7,505 children in the Growing Up in Ireland project, a longitudinal study carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin.

At age 9, each child’s primary caregiver was surveyed about stressful life events the child might have been exposed to, such as the death of a parent, drug taking/alcoholism in the immediate family, a stay in foster home/residential care, serious illness/injury, and divorce/separation of parents.

“Childhood adversity is common in Irish children, affecting 28% of the children in our sample,” said Healy.

The researchers found that childhood adversity was associated with problems at age 13. But a positive parent-child relationship appeared to buffer this association.

“Those who had adversity in childhood were more likely to have adolescent mental health difficulties and difficulties that persisted from childhood to adolescence (these included difficulties such as low mood and anxiety, hyperactivity, conduct and peer problems),” Healy told PsyPost.

“For all children, having lower levels of conflict between the primary caregiver and the child, higher self-esteem or participating in hobbies reduced the risk of mental health difficulties in adolescence.”

“If the child has experienced adversity, having lower parent-child conflict significantly reduces the adversity-associated risk of mental health difficulties. Thus, if a child has experienced adversity, maintaining low or reducing conflict with the primary caregiver is very important for preventing the child’s risk of mental health difficulties in later life,” Healy explained.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Our childhood adversity measure is a composite of a number of moderate to severe stressful life experience. Notably, our measure does not include information on major traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse or neglect,” Healy said.

“Thus, it remains to be confirmed whether the relationship between traumatic events and mental health difficulties are also mediated by the level of conflict between the child and the primary caregiver.”

“There may be other factors that mediate the relationship between childhood adversity and mental health difficulties that we have not considered within the study, such as the child’s relationship with his/her peers or physical exercise.

“Other mediators present an opportunity for new areas of investigation and may help further explain why some children who have experienced adversity go on to have mental health difficulties while other do not,” Healy continued.

“We would like to thank all the families and participating children from the Growing up in Ireland study for their time and dedication to the project as well as the field-research staff. Without their commitment to the project, this investigation would not have been possible.”

The study, “Childhood adversity and adolescent psychopathology: evidence for mediation in a national longitudinal cohort study“, was authored by Niamh Dhondt, Colm Healy, Mary Clarke, and Mary Cannon.