A new longitudinal study of parents and children in the United Kingdom found that children whose mothers were more likely to have internalizing problems, like feeling anxious or withdrawn, which can lead to disorders like depression. On the other hand, children whose mothers were atheists were more likely to have externalizing problems, such as being aggressive or defiant. The study was published in Psychological Medicine.
Mental health issues during childhood can be tough for both the child and the family. These issues can take two forms: internalizing and externalizing. Internalizing problems are when children struggle with their thoughts and feelings, often feeling anxious, sad, or withdrawn. Externalizing problems are when children’s behavior becomes problematic, like being impulsive, aggressive, or defiant.
Factors that depend on parents, such as the socioeconomic status of the family or the mental health of parents can play an important role in maintaining children’s mental health. Recent studies have also pointed to the religiosity of parents as a factor that contributes to mental health of children, but results in this regard have been inconsistent.
Some studies have reported a relationship between the religiosity of parents and internalizing problems in children, such as the development of anxiety or depression. Other studies have reported associations with externalizing problems, while some found no relationship at all.
Study author Isaac Halstead and his colleagues noted that conclusions of many of these studies are limited by the fact that they were conducted on small or convenient groups of individuals. To improve on that situation, these researchers decided to analyze data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) with the aim of examining the relationship between the religiosity of mothers and a range of mental health outcomes of children when children are 7-8 years of age.
The ALSPAC study was conducted to understand how genetic and environmental factors influence health and development in parents and children. The participants were pregnant women living in a specific area in Southwest England and expected to give birth between April 1991 and December 1992. Around 14,000 parents and children were included in the study, and they were followed for the next 30 years, completing assessments on various factors like demographics, physiology, social aspects, and psychology.
For this study, the researchers analyzed data on religiosity, children’s mental health at age 7 (reported by parents using the Development and Wellbeing Assessment), and psychosocial outcomes (reported by children at age 8). The mothers were categorized into four groups based on their religiosity: highly religious, moderately religious, agnostic, and atheist. The psychosocial outcomes included bullying, school competence, self-worth, happiness with friends, and antisocial behavior.
The results showed that children of highly religious mothers had a higher risk of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder compared to children of agnostic mothers. Children of moderately religious mothers had a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and oppositional defiant disorder. Lastly, children of atheist mothers had a higher risk of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder but were less likely to be bullies or unhappy with friends compared to children of agnostic mothers.
When looking at psychosocial outcomes, children of highly religious mothers had a higher risk of antisocial behavior, being bullied, and lower likelihood of being a bully. Children of moderately religious mothers had a higher risk of antisocial behavior and lower school competence compared to children of agnostic mothers. Children of atheist mothers had a higher risk of antisocial behavior but were less likely to be bullies or unhappy with friends.
“The current study found evidence that maternal religious belief was associated with a range of mental health and psychosocial outcomes in their offspring at age 7–8 years. Compared with children of Agnostic mothers, the children of Highly religious and Moderately religious parents were at greater risk of internalizing symptoms, and the children of Atheist parents were at greater risk of externalizing symptoms. However, there was no clear pattern of results for psychosocial outcomes,” study authors concluded.
While this study contributes valuable insights into the relationship between parental religiosity and children’s mental health, it also has limitations. Many participants dropped out of the study between the start and final data collection. Additionally, although the study aimed at including all residents fulfilling the study conditions from the defined areas, participants with higher religiosity and better socioeconomic status were more likely to agree to participate.
The paper, “Examining the role of maternal religiosity in offspring mental health using latent class analysis in a UK prospective cohort study”, was authored by Isaac Halstead, Jon Heron, Connie Svob, and Carol Joinson.