Parent separations linked with increased risk of depression and antisocial behaviour in adolescents

A study led by Laura Di Manno (Deakin University) in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health’s Craig Olsson, Jacqui Macdonald, George Youssef and Keri Little has identified three discrete classes of adolescents from dissolved families in relation to psychosocial risk, with two indicating greater risk for depression and antisocial behaviour.

Key points

  • Adolescents from dissolved families clustered into three classes.
  • Most adolescents from dissolved families were found to be well-adjusted.
  • Two classes were at increased risk for depression or antisocial behaviour.
  • Factors differentiating classes included temperament and parenting practices.

The study was conducted on 449 participants from the Australian Temperament Project (ATP) whose parents had separated or divorced between ages 0 to 18 years. Data on individual, relational and contextual psychosocial risk factors were collected from participants and parents at ages 13-14, 15-16 and 17-18. Class differences on depressive symptoms were subsequently examined at 19-20 years (emerging adulthood).

Following assessment of data, three classes were identified and differentiated according to patterns of psychosocial risk severity:

  • Adjusted, comprising 253 (56%) participants with 44% males and 56% females
  • Moderate Risk, comprising 156 (35%) with 51% males and 49% females
  • High risk, comprising 40 (9%) with 73% males and 27% females

Participants in the Adjusted class reported behaviour suggestive of positive development, including social skills and peer attachment, and were also found to have low levels of behavioural problems. Moderate Risk and High Risk classes were generally at greater risk for poorer emerging adult outcomes compared to the Adjusted class.

Moderate Risk adolescents showed higher than average behavioural risk factors, with moderate levels of internalising problems, and also demonstrated poorer peer attachment and social skills. The risk factors that characterised the Moderate Risk class were also associated with the highest depressive symptoms in emerging adulthood.

The High Risk class had the highest levels of behavioural risk factors, with extreme scores on externalising behaviours, such as conduct problems. Some adolescents in the High Risk class demonstrated up to six standard deviations above the mean on antisocial behaviour in emerging adulthood.

This research highlights that adolescent sub-populations do exist and can be characterized by unique patterns of contextual, relational and individual factors. Understanding of these sub-populations can then be used to develop targeted and individualised prevention and intervention strategies for adolescents from dissolved families potentially at risk for depressive and antisocial behaviour.

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