The Inter-relationship of Adolescent Unhappiness and Parental Mental Distress

Elizabeth Webb*, Lidia Panico, Laia Bécares, Anne McMunn, Yvonne Kelly, Amanda Sacker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose Substantial evidence supports the hypothesis that parental well-being impacts upon child well-being and that this relationship is bidirectional. Here we explore how, in a large, nationally representative sample, both parents' mental distress relates over time to each other's mental distress and to their adolescent child's unhappiness, and vice versa. Methods Analyses were conducted using data from waves one to five (2009/10–2014/15) of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Understanding Society collects data on adults' mental distress (General Health Questionnaire), and on youths' (age: 10–15 years) unhappiness in relation to their school work, appearance, family, friends, school, and life as a whole. We use repeated-measures structural equation models to investigate the reciprocal relationships between both parents' distress and their child's unhappiness, using both longitudinal cross-lagged and nonrecursive contemporaneous specifications. The analytic sample is 1,883 triads (adolescent child, mother, and father) with data at two or more consecutive time points. Analyses are stratified by adolescent gender. Results Our results show that parental mental distress predicts unhappiness of girls but not that of boys. Reciprocal associations of maternal and paternal mental distress are evident in families with an adolescent daughter. Unhappiness of adolescents does not predict their parents' mental distress. Results are similar whether examined contemporaneously or over time. Conclusions Our findings support the suggestion that the family should be considered as a dynamic system, for instance when planning clinical interventions. This is particularly pertinent in families with an adolescent daughter present.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-203
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


  • Adolescence
  • Family
  • Longitudinal
  • Mental distress
  • Parents
  • Unhappiness
  • Well-being


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