Skip to main content

New paper helps to understand how childhood emotional problems change over time

25 March 2024

Emotional problems like anxiety and depression are common, often manifesting early in life. Understanding how children differ in the development of emotional problems can help us identify who is most at risk of long-lasting difficulties.

A new paper titled Childhood correlates and young adult outcomes of trajectories of emotional problems from childhood to adolescence has just been released, shedding light on the complex trajectory of emotional difficulties in young individuals. Led by Dr Foteini Tseliou from the Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health, this study offers crucial insights into the evolution of emotional problems from childhood through adolescence.

The study, which tracked over 8,000 children born in the early 1990s, draws from extensive data collected through the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Researchers examined parent-completed questionnaires on behalf of children aged between four and seventeen. The questionnaires focused on symptoms of emotional problems such as worries, fears, nervousness, unhappiness, and physical complaints.

Key findings from the research revealed four distinct patterns of emotional problems observed across childhood and adolescence:

  1. Stable low symptoms: A majority of children (67%) exhibited few emotional symptoms throughout the study period.
  1. Decreasing symptoms: Some individuals (18%) started with elevated problems in childhood, which subsequently decreased over time.
  1. Increasing symptoms in adolescence: Approximately 9% of participants experienced low symptoms early on but developed more difficulties during their teenage years.
  1. Ongoing high symptoms: A small group (6%) faced high, ongoing emotional problems persisting from childhood through adolescence.

Moreover, the study uncovered significant implications for the long-term wellbeing of individuals based on the trajectory of their emotional difficulties.

“Those with increasing problems in adolescence or persistent issues from childhood were found to be at higher risk of depressive symptoms, self-harm, and poor educational attainment in early adulthood. On the other hand, children whose problems decreased over time did not exhibit elevated risk for mental health or functional problems as young adults.”
Foteini Tseliou Research Associate, Division of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences

The research also identified several factors associated with a persistent course of emotional problems, including childhood sleep difficulties, irritability, conduct and neurodevelopmental issues, as well as family adversity.

In light of these findings, the study emphasizes that childhood emotional problems are common, but for many children, they improve with time, with no elevated risk of poor adult outcomes. Persistent or adolescent-onset emotional problems require targeted support to prevent lasting mental health and other adversities in adulthood. Identifying and supporting children with ongoing or adolescent-onset emotional problems is key for preventing poor long-term outcomes.

Dr Tseliou concluded: This study not only enhances our understanding of childhood emotional difficulties but also underscores the urgent need for tailored interventions to support vulnerable individuals throughout their developmental journey.

The paper “Childhood correlates and young adult outcomes of trajectories of emotional problems from childhood to adolescence” is published online by Cambridge University Press in Psychological Medicine.

Share this story

We are looking for parents with a history of depression, who have a child aged between 13-17 years to take part in the Skills for Adolescent Wellbeing study.