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Growing up in Ireland: Girls significantly more likely than boys to experience symptoms of depression

Autonomy-granting was a protective factor against depressed mood for both boys and girls.

File image: Girls who reported that their mothers and fathers granted them autonomy and freedom had lower levels of depressed mood.
File image: Girls who reported that their mothers and fathers granted them autonomy and freedom had lower levels of depressed mood.
Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

NEW GROWING UP In Ireland research has shed light on how the mental health and wellbeing of thirteen-year-olds were affected as they came of age during the 2008 recession.

The majority were doing well, but a small minority were displaying consistent difficulties from the age of nine, according to a new report launching later today through the ERSI. 

The study is the national longitudinal study of children, funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with a contribution from The Atlantic Philanthropies. Researchers analysed the data from the 7,400 children and families who participated in the Growing Up in Ireland study at 9 years, 13 years, 17 years and 20 years of age.

Today’s report is based on results from Cohort ’98 at age 9 and 13 years as they transitioned from primary to secondary school and entered puberty during the recession of 2008-2013.

The results look at the role of puberty, relationships, and economic factors had on outcomes like symptoms of depression and anxiety, engagement in antisocial behaviour, and use of alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoking.

High and low risk 

Researchers found that 88% of 13-year olds were doing well, but different patterns had emerged for boys and girls during that period.

Some 16% of 13-year-olds rated themselves as having symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of depression, however, girls (18%) were more likely than boys (14%) to score above the cut-off for depression.

About 7% of the sample were categorised as having difficulties at both 9 and 13, a group which researchers say we should be most concerned about “as their social, emotional and behavioural problems were likely becoming more entrenched”. 

80% of the sample displayed no significant difficulties at either 9 or 13 years, while the remaining 12% said difficulties were either newly emerging at age 13 (5%) or difficulties had dissipated during the four year period (7%).

Anti-social behaviour among the 13-year-olds was relatively rare, although 13% said they had not paid the correct fare on public transport, and 7% had stolen from a shop, at least once. 

Overall, 7% of the sample had previously been in trouble with gardaí, with boys engaged in more anti-social behaviour than girls.

Nine per cent of the 13-year-olds said they had previously smoked a cigarette, but only 2% of the sample currently smoked; about half of these smoked every day.

Around 1.4 % of them said they had tried cannabis (boys more likely than girls), 2.9%  had sniffed glue/paints/petrol to get high (girls more likely than boys) and less than 1%  had tried ‘harder’ drugs. 

Autonomy 

Researchers noted that the timing of the onset of puberty mattered, particularly for girls, but relationships with friends and parents were more important.

Early maturing girls had poorer outcomes than girls who were either on time or late maturers, according to the report: “These girls had higher depressive scores and higher anti-social behaviour. They were also more likely to have smoked cigarettes and consumed alcohol.” 

For boys, being an early maturer was not as clearly associated with their outcomes.

The analysis found that late-maturing boys had significantly higher depressive scores but lower anti-social behaviour scores than both the on-time and early maturing boys.

The early maturing boys were also significantly more likely than on-time and late maturing boys to have consumed alcohol, but not smoked cigarettes.

The study found that once other factors, such as quality of relationships with parents and friends were taken into account, the effect of pubertal timing was weakened:

The most important predictors of difficulties such as anxious and depressed mood for girls and boys related to problems with peer relationships – involvement in bullying, as a victim or a perpetrator, and poorer quality peer relationships were linked to more difficulties

The picture was less clear in terms of the number of friends; for girls, having fewer friends was associated with greater difficulties, while for boys having more friends was associated with greater difficulties. Where friends were older, girls reported higher levels of depressed mood, but this was not the case for boys.

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Having more friends, older friends, being a perpetrator of bullying at age 9, and higher levels of alienation from peers were all associated with higher levels of anti-social behaviour, for both boys and girls.

Conflict and low levels of closeness with mothers (more so than with fathers) were important predictors of higher depressed mood among girls.

Girls who reported that their mothers and fathers granted them autonomy and freedom had lower levels of depressed mood.

Increases in fathers being responsive to their sons’ needs across waves appeared to be protective, as these boys had lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms. Fewer difficulties also emerged when boys perceived that their mothers granted them appropriate autonomy.

“Thus, for both boys and girls, autonomy-granting was a protective factor against depressed mood,” the report notes. 

According to the study’s author Dr Elizabeth Nixon, helping parents to understand the teenage transition and how they can appropriately support adolescents’ sense of autonomy “is likely to yield positive outcomes, both in terms of the parent-child relationship and in terms of youth outcomes”. 

The report concludes that an important protective factor for the mental health of children in that age cohort is having good quality relationships with peers and parents. Across the board, boys and girls in the ‘low-risk category’ reported low levels of conflict with their parents, having more than one friend, and higher maternal education levels. 

Today’s more detailed report follows from earlier reporting on the 13-year olds published in 2018.

Growing Up in Ireland is managed by the DCYA in association with the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and overseen by an interdepartmental governance structure. It is carried out by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (the ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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