Having a happy childhood may not lead to good mental health, study finds

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Being able to adapt and cope with stress is key to achieving positive mental health outcomes

As more and more studies focus on kids’ mental health struggles, it’s becoming clearer how stressful situations -- like divorced parents or losing a pet -- can have a long-term impact. However, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia is exploring how kids’ mental health can suffer even when they’re relatively happy and healthy. 

According to the researchers, kids’ mental health outcomes aren’t affected solely by their life experiences; kids who grew up in more stressful circumstances are just as likely to struggle with mental health problems as those whose upbringing was more peaceful. 

“This research shows that mental health conditions are not solely determined by early life events and that a child who is raised in a happy home, could still grow up to have a mental health disorder,” said researcher Bianca Kahl. 

“There’s certainly some missing factors in understanding how our childhood environment and early life experiences might translate into mental health outcomes in adulthood,” she continued. “We suspect that it’s our ability to adapt to scenarios when our expectations are not being met, that may be influencing our experiences of distress.” 

The importance of strong coping skills

To better understand kids’ mental health struggles, the researchers had over 340 participants complete surveys that covered a lot of ground about their personal histories. This included demographic information, childhood experiences, social and familial relationships, and symptoms and experiences related to mental health disorders. 

The researchers learned that all of the participants were susceptible to mental health concerns, regardless of what their childhoods looked like; however, they did find that some symptom-related trends emerged in kids with more chaotic upbringings versus kids from more stable homes. 

For example, kids with less stressful childhoods were more prone to anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms, which is when mental concerns show up in the body as various ailments or pains. On the other hand, kids with harsher childhoods were more likely to experience depression and paranoia. 

While it’s impossible to anticipate everything life will throw at us, the researchers believe that kids who know how to handle uncertainty and can develop healthy coping skills when faced with adversity are likely to have the strongest mental health outcomes -- no matter what kind of environment they grew up in. 

“As the prevalence of mental health conditions expands, it’s imperative that we also extend our knowledge of this very complex and varied condition,” Kahl said. “If, as children, we learn how to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things don’t go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health.” 

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