Teenage perceptions of household chaos predict mental health challenges in early adulthood

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A recent study published in psychological science has found that adolescents who perceive their homes as chaotic are more likely to experience mental health problems in adulthood. Research highlights that adolescents who view their homes as unstructured, disorganized or hectic report more mental and behavioral health problems in early adulthood.

The researchers set out to explore the long-term impact of perceived domestic chaos on mental health. Previous studies have shown that chaotic home environments can negatively affect children’s social, emotional, and educational development. However, it was unclear whether these effects extend into adulthood. Given that siblings may experience the same home differently, this study sought to understand how individual perceptions of chaos influence future mental health outcomes.

The study used data from the Early Twin Development Study, which involves twins born between 1994 and 1996 in England and Wales. The researchers focused on twins to control for shared genetic and environmental factors within families. They analyzed responses from 9-, 12-, 14-, and 16-year-old twins about their perceptions of chaos in the home, as well as parents’ reports of chaos in the home at ages 9, 12, and 14 years. The developmental outcomes of the twins were then assessed at age 23 years. .

The sample included 4,732 pairs of same-sex twins, as opposite-sex twins were excluded to avoid confounding results due to gender differences. Measures of household chaos included a six-item scale assessing the level of routine, noise, and general environmental confusion. At age 23, the twins reported on several outcomes, including educational level, employment status, income, substance use, mental health, and more.

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The study found that adolescents who perceived their homes as more chaotic at age 16 had worse mental health outcomes at age 23. These outcomes included higher levels of depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior, as well as lower levels of self-control. Importantly, these associations remained significant even after accounting for family socioeconomic status and parent-reported domestic chaos.

The researchers found that siblings could have markedly different perceptions of their family environment. One sibling might find the house much louder and more hectic than the other.

“You might think that the siblings grew up in different families,” said study author Sophie von Stumm, a psychology professor at York University. “That’s how subjective their perceptions are.”

The twin differences design, controlling for shared family factors, revealed that the subjective experience of chaos in the home independently predicted adult mental health outcomes. Specifically, those who reported higher levels of chaos at home showed greater mental health problems, suggesting a strong link between perceived chaos and subsequent mental health.

The study also explored the impact of domestic chaos at different ages. While significant associations were found at ages 9, 12, and 14, the effects were strongest at age 16. This suggests that perceptions of chaos at home during late adolescence are particularly influential on mental health in early adulthood.

“Siblings who perceived the home as more chaotic than their brothers or sisters reported worse mental health outcomes in early adulthood,” von Stumm said. “This association was evident from adolescence onwards, confirming theories that the onset of mental health problems likely occurs during adolescence.”

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Despite its strengths, the study has some limitations. Reliance on self-reported data for both household chaos and adult outcomes may introduce bias. Furthermore, although the twin differences design controls for shared family factors, it cannot account for all unmeasured confounding variables. For example, underlying mental health problems could influence perceptions of chaos at home.

Future research could explore whether interventions aimed at altering children’s perceptions of household chaos can improve long-term mental health outcomes. It would also be beneficial to examine the specific aspects of chaos, such as noise or lack of routine, that are most detrimental to mental health.

Von Stumm aims to investigate the age-specific and underlying reasons for differences in sibling perceptions of domestic chaos.

“Children who experience more adverse events in early life than their siblings, such as suffering an injury or being excluded from school, may develop a greater sensitivity to domestic chaos that then has long-term effects on their mental health.” “, said. . “Because many common adverse events in early life, such as conflict or parental separation, affect all children in a family, we do not yet know if there are specific ones that may cause poor long-term mental health.” .

The study, “Adolescents’ Perceptions of Domestic Chaos Predict Their Mental Health in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Twin Differences Cohort Study”, was published on May 8, 2024.

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