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Adversity in adolescence: Research insights and co-creation with young people

Dr Kathryn Bates and Afraa Din

Research Fellow at the IoPPN; Young person advisor

05 February 2024

The Lifespan Modelling and Psychometrics (LIFE-MAP) lab at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) has been investigating how adverse experiences during adolescence impact development – a project funded by the ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative. At the end of the project, they worked with young person advisors to create an animation aimed at disseminating their research findings in an engaging and accessible way. Young person advisor, Afraa Din, and Research Fellow, Dr Kathryn Bates, tell us about the research and the process of creating an animation.

Around two-thirds of children encounter at least one type of adversity before turning 18. Adversities are potentially stressful life events, such as emotional abuse or the death of a loved one, that can have a lasting impact on mental and physical health. Yet, when it comes to adolescence (age 10-19 years), there’s still much we don’t know.

Adolescence is a period of heightened sensitivity to social development. During these years, we become more independent from caregivers, our relationships become more complex, and we develop high-level social and cognitive skills, such as decision-making and problem-solving. The newfound independence and broadening social environment can present opportunities, such as making lasting friendships, but also vulnerabilities, such as exposure to social exclusion and bullying.

Unpicking the impact of adversity

Written by Dr Kathryn Bates, Research Fellow at the IoPPN

We set out to identify the key challenges that young people face and investigate how these challenges impact development. Using data from the large ALSPAC cohort of around 15,000 participants, research led by IoPPN PhD student, Ayla Pollmann, investigated networks of adversities in adolescence and childhood and their relation to adult mental health. Across both age brackets, emotional abuse within the family was significantly associated with poorer mental health in adulthood. However, family issues, housing, academic challenges, and abuse from romantic partners were particularly central in adolescence. These findings emphasise the importance of understanding the developmental repercussions of adversities that might be unique to adolescence.

Led by IoPPN placement students, Man Shiu Kwok and Amber Inman, we further explored the occurrence of social adversities within ALSPAC and UKHLS, another UK cohort study. Our preprint found that around a quarter of adolescents fell into a poly-adversity profile, meaning that they reported experiencing several social adversities, including peer relationship problems, sibling bullying, and school issues. Sibling bullying is often brushed off as “normal”, but our findings show it can be a prominent experience for some adolescents. Our findings highlighted that social adversities may be a common experience in adolescence, and that sibling bullying should not be ignored.

As part of our ESRC Secondary Data Initiative grant, we collaborated with Barnardo’s Children’s Charity to understand what challenges young people are facing today. Teaming up with student researchers, we analysed responses from their support practitioner survey over 10 waves of data collection from June 2019 to November 2021. We investigated the responses to two key questions: (1) What are your biggest concerns for young people?; and (2) What emerging issues have you seen in young people over the last few months? Analysis of practitioner insights revealed that young people experience a wide range of issues, from family conflict and financial instability to online exploitation and limited access to support services. In response to these findings, we called for Mental Health Hubs to be extended across the UK and for support transitioning from child to adolescent mental health services.

Ensuring research reaches young people

Written by Afraa Din, young person advisor

The LIFE-MAP lab researchers emphasised the importance of sharing their research findings with young people in an engaging way that was driven by young people themselves. Mariam Shah and I took on the role of young person advisors on a variety of projects in the lab, and led the creation of the an ESRC-funded animation summarising the team's latest research on how adolescent adversity impacts development. We were tasked with ensuring the output resonated with young people and that the complex research findings were presented clearly.

We collaborated with the LIFE-MAP team to first develop the animation script. I initially found developing the script from scratch a challenge, however, this became easier once we began to simultaneously work on the vision of the storyboard. We decided to base the script around two young people’s journeys through adolescence. In this way, we could show that adolescence looks different for every individual without complicating the animation with multiple story threads.

To ensure that our audience had a clear understanding of the research findings and their implications, we explained key concepts at the start of the animation, particularly the terms adolescence and adversity.

Weaved throughout the animation were appearances of characters depicting the LIFE-MAP team (including myself!). I thought this was a great idea to demystify what a research team looks like. It was particularly special to see the animator transform our photographs into characters and to see that in the first animation draft.

This experience has been very unique and I have valued the opportunity to work with both the LIFE-MAP researchers and JDK Films to produce this animation.

Watch the video below, and follow the LIFE-MAP lab’s YouTube channel for future updates:

This video was produced by JDK Films.

In this story

Kathryn Bates

Kathryn Bates

Post-Doctoral Researcher

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