Open Access Research article

A three generation study of the mental health relationships between grandparents, parents and children

Kirsten J Hancock*, Francis Mitrou, Megan Shipley, David Lawrence and Stephen R Zubrick

Author Affiliations

Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, The University of Western Australia, PO Box 855, West Perth, WA 6872, Australia

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BMC Psychiatry 2013, 13:299  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-299

Published: 9 November 2013

Abstract

Background

It is well known that children of parents with mental illness are at greater risk of mental illness themselves. However the patterns of familial mental health problems across multiple generations in families are less clear. This study aimed to examine mental health relationships across three generations of Australian families.

Methods

Mental health data, along with a range of family demographic information, were collected from over 4600 families in Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a nationally representative cohort study. The social and emotional wellbeing of two cohorts of children aged 4–5 years and 8–9 years was measured using the parent-rated Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The mental health of mothers and fathers was measured using the Kessler 6-item K6 scale, and the mental health history of maternal and paternal grandmothers and grandfathers was measured using a dichotomous parent-report item. Multivariate linear regression analyses were used assess the relationships between grandparent and parent mental health and child social and emotional wellbeing at ages 4–5 years and 8–9 years.

Results

Both cohorts of children had greater mental health distress with higher SDQ scores on average if their mother or father had a mental health problem. For children aged 8–9 years, a history of mental health problems in maternal grandmothers and grandfathers was associated with higher SDQ scores in grandchildren, after controlling for maternal and paternal mental health and other family characteristics. For children aged 4–5 years, only a mental health history in paternal grandfathers was associated with higher SDQ scores.

Conclusions

The mental health histories of both parents and grandparents play an important role in the social and emotional wellbeing of young children.

Keywords:
Intergenerational transfer; Mental health; Children and families