Study Finds Link Between Childhood Behavior and Teen Mental Health

little girl drawing on the wall

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found an association between childhood behavioral difficulties and adolescent mental health issues.
  • 22% of children with anxiety problems developed emotional problems during adolescence.
  • The researchers hope that their findings may lead to a way to predict the difficulties of some young people and intervene sooner.

While brain research suggests that the most important stage in a child’s development is birth to age 3, it’s important not to forget about the transition period from childhood into adolescence (around age 10 to 16). Young people go through enormous changes during this phase—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

This stage was the focus of a recent study by academics at the University of Cambridge and Royal Holloway, University of London, in the U.K. Published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, the study found an association between childhood behavioral difficulties, such as anxiety and hyperactivity, and poor mental health during adolescence.

Researchers also found that kids with behavioral difficulties are more likely to experience problems as adolescents if they’re from less privileged backgrounds. 

The Study

The study used historical data from 6,744 young people over six years, from age 10 to 16. The data came from the British Cohort Study, an ongoing project that is following the lives of the same group of people born during one week in April 1970. 

At each stage, the researchers employed a data-driven hierarchical clustering method to pinpoint common profiles of behavioral problems, map transitions between profiles, and identify factors that predict particular transitions.

The data also contains information about the children’s socio-economic circumstances, including family income and their parents’ level of education. 

GinaMarie Guarino, LCSW

This study does well with illustrating the importance of individualized care to the person, even if that person is an adolescent.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LCSW

Dr. Duncan Astle, from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, said in a news release, “At present, adolescent behavior and mental health difficulties are only treated once they become problematic, which is one of the main reasons why mental health services are overwhelmed. Our work shows how we might begin to develop a way to predict the difficulties of some—perhaps many—young people and intervene sooner.”

The researchers said several significant patterns emerged from the study. Firstly, an unexpectedly high percentage of children with anxiety problems (22%) developed emotional problems during adolescence. Around a quarter (24%) of children with conduct problems displayed "a constellation of problems" with anxiety, emotion, and inattention in adolescence. And around 17% of children with combined emotion, motor, and hyperactivity problems developed inattention problems in adolescence. 

"This study does well with illustrating the importance of individualized care to the person, even if that person is an adolescent," says licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC.

Childhood Is Complex

The study findings didn’t come as a complete surprise to licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, PhD, MSW. “We all know that a lot of change happens during adolescence,” she says.

“It’s a dynamic and complex period of tremendous physical, emotional, and social growth. Sometimes previous (or new) mental health challenges can peak and it may be critical to find support by way of counseling, outreach, environmental controls, or other positive outlets.”

Melanie English, PhD, MSW

A lot of environmental and developmental things can also happen between 3 and 10 years old which can impact behaviors and personality.

— Melanie English, PhD, MSW

However, English says it’s also important to look wholly and externally at what else might be impacting behaviors at this time, such as the parent’s mental health, divorce, violence in the home, or a death in the family. She suggests that it's worth remembering that when someone reaches adolescence, they've not yet finished growing and developing, and their mental health and/or personality traits may not be permanent.

"Maturity really isn’t reached for another decade or so, as frontal lobe development and executive functioning will still unfold—in addition to life experience," English adds. "As such, we shouldn’t look at our teenagers as a finished product or think who they were and who they are to guarantee who they will be."

English continues, "Parents (and educators, communities, and mental and physical health providers) still have necessary and active roles to help children express and handle their feelings and navigate adolescence."

English also points out that a lot of personality traits emerge as early as the preschool age, which is a time period based on growing peer interactions, imaginative play, and learning rules.

"There are theories suggesting some personality traits emerge at this time and are pervasive, biological, and genetic," she says. "But a lot of environmental and developmental things can also happen between 3- and 10-years-old. which can impact behaviors and personality, such as starting school, developing friendships, moral development, and gender identity. Childhood can be so complex."

Anxiety Can Present at Any Age

A child can be impacted by anxiety and other mental health conditions at any age. "A child can begin to show signs of anxiety as early as 3- or 4-years-old, but not every child with anxiety will begin showing symptoms or behavioral issues in this age range," Guarino says. "Every child is different, has different factors that contribute to their anxiety, different resources, and different environmental stressors to learn how to cope with."

GinaMarie Guarino, LCSW

Every child is different, has different factors that contribute to their anxiety, different resources, and different environmental stressors to learn how to cope with.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LCSW

The biggest concern is unaddressed anxiety in a child which then leads to mental health issues in adolescence, such as conduct problems, struggles with emotional regulation, and difficulty with attention and hyperactivity.

"Anxiety can be misunderstood in children by parents and caretakers, which can lead to them not getting the attention and care they need to learn how to identify and cope with their anxiety in a healthy way," Guarino says. "As a result, a child with anxiety can develop conduct issues, trouble with inattention, and struggles with emotional regulation."

Don't Be Too Quick to Label Your 'Moody' Teen

Teenagers often get a hard time for being moody or challenging, and sometimes those challenging moods and behaviors are simply put down to "being a teenager." But English warns against putting labels on adolescent moods and behaviors, and making jokes to them and others about "being a teenager." 

"Not only is that overly simplifying the complex physical and emotional changes going on beyond their control, but it also reduces them to that label without taking the time to appreciate their story and their experiences, which may shape who they are," English explains. "We know early intervention is helpful for a variety of things. Looking wholly at our children’s behaviors and environment at a much younger age would be helpful for them as they grow and might mitigate some of the additional pressures and big feelings that surmount once they begin puberty and adolescence."

And if we do see consistent challenges from an early age, then early support for children and education and tools for their parents makes a lot of sense, English adds. "Luckily today, we have more resources, books, support groups, studies, conversations, terminology, and professionals who can help compared to a generation or two before," she says.

Guarino agrees. "With proper attention to mood and behavioral issues in adolescence, the teen can begin learning healthy coping and communication skills before they reach adulthood," she says. "This helps them develop emotional intelligence and awareness skills that will be useful for them in adulthood."

What This Means For You

If you have an anxious child, many strategies can help you help them—such as tackling negative thoughts, validating their feelings, and breathwork. If you feel out of your depth, a therapist can help you learn how best to support your child.

And of course, you can take steps to improve your child's mental health whatever age they are, from preschool to teenager. If you're concerned about the mental health of your teen, never hesitate to bring up the topic with their pediatrician.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tierney A, Nelson C. Brain development and the role of experience in the early years. Zero Three. 2009 Nov.

  2. Bathelt J et al. Just a phase? Mapping the transition of behavioural problems from childhood to adolescence. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2021 February. doi:10.1007/s00127-020-02014-4

  3. University of Cambridge. Early behavioural problems predict adolescent mental health difficulties, study shows. (n.d.)

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.