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

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 teenagers who perceive their homes as chaotic are more likely to experience mental health issues in adulthood. The research highlights that adolescents who view their households as unstructured, disorganized, or hectic report more mental health and behavioral problems in early adulthood.

Researchers aimed to explore the long-term impact of perceived household 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 can experience the same household differently, this study sought to understand how individual perceptions of chaos influence mental health outcomes later in life.

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

The sample included 4,732 same-sex twin pairs, 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 various outcomes, including educational attainment, employment status, income, substance use, mental health, and more.

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 household chaos.

The researchers found that siblings could have markedly different perceptions of their home environment. One sibling might see the household as much noisier and more hectic than the other.

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

The twin-difference design, which controls for shared family factors, revealed that the subjective experience of household chaos independently predicted adult mental health outcomes. Specifically, those who reported higher levels of household chaos showed more significant mental health issues, suggesting a robust link between perceived chaos and later mental health.

The study also explored the impact of household 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 household chaos during late adolescence are particularly influential on mental health in early adulthood.

“Siblings who perceived the household as more chaotic than their brothers or sisters reported poorer mental health outcomes in young adulthood,” von Stumm said. “This association was evident from adolescence onwards, confirming theories that the onset of mental health issues likely is during teenage years.”

Despite its strengths, the study has some limitations. The reliance on self-reported data for both household chaos and adult outcomes may introduce bias. Additionally, while the twin-difference design controls for shared family factors, it cannot account for all unmeasured confounding variables. For example, underlying mental health issues could influence perceptions of household chaos.

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 intends to investigate the specific age and underlying reasons for the differences in siblings’ perceptions of household chaos.

“It is possible that children who experience more adverse events in early life than their siblings, like suffering an injury or being excluded from school, develop a heightened sensitivity to household chaos that then has long-term effects on their mental health,” she said. “Because many common adverse early-life events, such as parental conflict or separation, affect all children of a family, we don’t know yet if there are specific ones that can cause poor long-term mental health.”

The study, “Adolescents’ Perceptions of Household Chaos Predict Their Adult Mental Health: A Twin-Difference Longitudinal Cohort Study,” was published May 8, 2024.