Exploratory studies that generate testable models of how risk factors for childhood mental health problems work together over time are critical for developing effective prevention and treatment strategies.
To build models addressing the following 2 questions: (1) How early can we identify children at risk for mental health problems in third grade? (2) How do the risk factors work together over time?
Design and Participants
We assessed a Wisconsin community sample 8 times, beginning during pregnancy. Three hundred seventy-nine families completed multi-informant reports (mothers, teachers, and children) of children's mental health symptoms in third grade.
Main Outcome Measures
Symptom severity and directionality (externalizing vs internalizing).
The hypothesis was generated that family socioeconomic status (SES) defined different pathways to symptom severity. In low/middle SES families, children were at risk if their mothers were distressed during the infancy period, which was then associated with more generalized maternal and child distress and dysregulation during the preschool period. In high SES families, the picture was more complex, beginning with parental histories of depression and family psychopathology, which then led to greater family stress in the infancy period and maternal and child distress and dysregulation during the preschool period. For all children, social and academic impairment during the school transition was an important mediator. Two pathways to later symptom directionality consisted of one beginning with child sex and the other with child temperament.
Most risk factors predicted symptom severity and not directionality. The risk factors for internalizing and externalizing problems may be much the same, and the same preventive interventions might be effective for both classes of problems. Furthermore, at-risk children from high SES families might be identifiable as early as infancy, whereas those from lower SES families may be identifiable only as preschoolers.