Highlights in child mental health research: July 2020
Various, Australia, July 2020
The monthly research summary provides a selection of recently released papers, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses related to infant and child mental health.
Each summary includes an introductory overview of the content for the month, followed by a list of selected articles. Each article is accompanied by a brief synopsis which presents the key messages and highlights. Links to abstracts, full-text articles and related resources, where available, are provided.
- What’s new this month in child mental health research?
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) and children: Resources, research, and reports
- Sleep and wellbeing of Australian children
- Inequalities in exposure to adversity in Australian children
- Infants of parents with mental health problems in Australia
- Children’s emotional regulation as a protective factor for their wellbeing
What’s new this month in child mental health research?
This month’s highlights include:
Check out recently released reports and journal articles on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it might affect children and families.
Using data from over 4,500 children, this study by Williamson and colleagues (2020) found a link between problems with sleep and negative outcomes in multiple areas of child wellbeing. The findings highlight the importance of early screening, identification and treatment of children’s sleep problems to promote their well-being.
This study by O’Connor and colleagues (2020) found that being of a higher socio-economic status did not offer equal benefits for children of ethnic minorities or Indigenous backgrounds (relative to Anglo-Euro children); these children experienced a greater burden of exposure to childhood adversity.
This intergenerational study of participants from the Australian Temperament Project found that depression and anxiety in mothers before their child’s conception predicted behaviour problems in their infant offspring (Letcher et al., 2020). The findings support a stronger focus on supporting parental mental health during the preconception and postnatal periods.
This systematic review found “good evidence… [that children’s] emotional regulation functions as both a promotive and protective factor for psychological and behavioural outcomes” (Daniel, Abdel-Baki, & Hall, 2020, p. 2010). Hence emotional regulation may be a potentially modifiable factor that could be targeted when designing and implementing interventions that seek to promote children’s wellbeing.
Sleep and wellbeing of Australian children
Longitudinal sleep problem trajectories are associated with multiple impairments in child well-being (Australia)
Authors: Williamson, A.A., Mindell, J.A., Hiscock, H., & Quach, J.
Journal: The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
- This study investigated the relationship between pathways in children’s sleep problems (from infancy to mid-childhood) and subsequent wellbeing (at age 10 to 11 years).
- Researchers analysed data of over 4,500 children from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), including data on children’s sleep problems from at least four time-points (with a maximum of six time-points).
- The domains of child well-being measured were:
- Emotional and behavioural functioning, specifically internalising symptoms (i.e. emotional problems), externalising symptoms (i.e. problems with behaviour; problems with hyperactivity/attention), and self-control.
- Quality of life (health-related)
- Cognitive skills
- Academic performance
- The study found five trajectories of sleep problems in children across time:
- No problems (around 52% of children)
- Mild problems over time (around 14%)
- Limited problems in infancy/pre-school (around 9%)
- Increased problems through middle childhood (around 17%)
- Persistent problems through middle childhood (around 7%)
- Other key findings included:
- Overall, there was a link between problems with sleep (as perceived by caregivers) and negative child outcomes. This link was found in multiple areas of wellbeing.
- Children with persisting sleep problems showed the largest impairments (compared to children without sleep problems). These impairments were across all outcomes (including internalising symptoms, externalising symptoms, quality of life, and self-control) with the exception of cognitive skills.
- Children who showed increased problems with sleep had higher levels of internalising symptoms and externalising symptoms, as well as poorer quality of life and self-control.
- These findings highlight the importance of early screening, identification and treatment of sleep problems by practitioners to promote the well-being of infants and children (including emotional and behavioural functioning).
Inequalities in exposure to adversity in Australian children
Inequalities in the distribution of childhood adversity from birth to 11 years (Australia)
Authors: O’Connor, M., Slopen, N., Becares, L., Burgner, D., Williams, D.R., & Priest, N.
Journal: Academic Pediatrics
- Using data of over 5,000 Australia children from infancy to age 10-11 years, this study explored the prevalence and distribution of exposure to adversity during childhood.
- The study also investigated possible inequalities in exposure to childhood adversity based on socio-economic status, ethnicity, and Indigenous status.
- Researchers analysed data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC).
- The types of adverse experiences included in the study were:
- family violence
- parental divorce/separation
- parental legal problems
- harsh parenting
- household member with mental illness
- household member with substance abuse
- death of a family member
- being a victim of bullying
- exposure to a neighbourhood that was unsafe.
- Key findings included:
- “By age 10-11 years, 8% of children had been exposed to 2 or more adversities” (p. 609).
- Children from Indigenous backgrounds or an ethnic minority, who were also of higher socio-economic status, were more likely to have experienced multiple adversities (compared to Anglo-Euro children of a similar socio-economic position).
- Being of a higher socio-economic status did not offer equal benefits for children of ethnic minorities or Indigenous backgrounds (relative to Anglo-Euro children). These children experienced a greater burden of exposure to childhood adversity and being of higher socio-economic status did not seem to offer the same protection.
- The researchers report that their findings support the need for strategies and approaches that target racism and discrimination given the contribution of these factors to patterns of adversity. Examples include educational and awareness-raising initiatives, as well as increasing the representation/recruitment of healthcare practitioners who are of Indigenous and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Infants of parents with mental health problems in Australia
Adolescent and young adult mental health problems and infant offspring behavior: Findings from a prospective intergenerational cohort study (Australia)
Authors: Letcher, P., Greenwood, C.J., Romaniuk, H., Spry, E., Macdonald, J.A., McAnally, H., Thomson, K.C.; Youssef, G., Hutchinson, D., McIntosh, J., Sanson, A., Ryan, J., Edwards, B., Sligo, J., Hancox, R.J., Patton, G.C., & Olsson, C.A.
Journal: Journal of Affective Disorders
- This intergenerational study investigated the relationships between parents’ history of mental health problems and behaviour problems in their infant offspring.
- Participants were recruited from the Australian Temperament Project (a large intergenerational study following the social and emotional development of children and their parents). Data from 648 mother-infant pairs and 423 father-infant pairs was used.
- Parents’ history of mental health problems was considered from adolescence onwards.
- Behaviour problems of infant offspring were measured via parent-reports at age 1 year.
- Key findings included:
- Depression and anxiety in mothers before their child’s conception predicted behavior problems in their infant offspring.
- Depression and anxiety in fathers before their child’s conception did not predict behavior problems in their infant offspring. That is, there was no association found.
- The researchers concluded that “a mother’s history of persistent depression and anxiety from adolescence to young adulthood can predict higher levels of behavior problems in her infant” (p. 521). However, future research is still needed to explore the possible factors that might influence this association given that not all children who have a parent with depression/anxiety are at an equal risk of behaviour problems.
- These findings have implications for practitioners, service providers and policy makers. As the researchers highlight, these results support the need for a stronger focus on parental mental health during the preconception and postnatal periods. This may lead to benefits for both parents and the next generation.
Children’s emotional regulation as a protective factor for their wellbeing
The protective effect of emotion regulation on child and adolescent wellbeing
Authors: Daniel, S.K., Abdel-Baki, R., & Hall, G.B.
Journal: Journal of Child and Family Studies
- This systematic review investigated the “promotive and protective effects of emotion regulation (ER) on psychological and behavioural outcomes among children and adolescents” (p. 2010).
- 50 studies were included, which were performed with children and adolescents. The age of study participants ranged from 6 months to 22 years old.
- Emotion regulation broadly refers to the process by which a person actively influences the kinds of emotions they experience and when/how these emotions are expressed. As children develop, it includes the ability to use strategies to manage emotions.
- The review found “good evidence that ER functions as both a promotive and protective factor for psychological and behavioural outcomes for children and adolescents” (p. 2010).
- More specifically, the review suggested that ER can promote:
- reductions in internalising problems (i.e. emotional problems that are experienced internally)
- reductions in externalising problems (i.e. problem behaviours directed outwards)
- improvements in mental health outcomes (e.g. reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression)
- These findings have implications for practitioners and service providers, as ER is a potentially modifiable factor that could be targeted when designing and implementing interventions that seek to promote children’s well-being.
- The review also highlights the need for future research that focuses on reaching a consistent definition of ER given that the included studies used a variety of approaches.