The inter-relationship of adolescent unhappiness and parental mental distress

Publication type

Journal Article

Published in

Journal of Adolescent Health


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

Publication date


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.

Volume and page numbers

60, 196-203





Young People, Well Being, Sociology Of Households and Social Psychology


Open Access; Open Access funded by Economic and Social Research Council; Under a Creative Commons license