First Steps Logo


This study aims to find out why some children develop behaviour problems from an early age and what factors lead to them persisting. If these difficulties are not understood and families are not helped by informed therapeutic interventions, we know that such problems can develop into serious aggression in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood. If identified early, some childhood behaviour can be helped by supporting parents in using optimal parenting strategies. However, once problematic behaviour has become entrenched it can become harder to change. That is why it is important to identify and understand the factors that contribute to the development of these problem behaviours early in life, so chronic problems can be prevented for families in future.

Previous research suggests many risk and protective factors may play a role. These include:

  • stress during pregnancy or in early life
  • aspects of the parent-child relationship, genetic make-up
  • family relationships
  • peer relationships
  • support from the wider community
  • cognitive (mental) and language development
  • physiological development
  • children’s emotional reactions to situations or events
  • poverty and social circumstances
  • life stressors

We also know that there is likely to be a complex interplay between these factors and we hope to discover which are the most important in early life and over time. It is important to identify sources of resilience that might make it less likely that behavioural difficulties will develop. Such factors include individual characteristics of children that make them resilient when faced with difficult events or stressors, and parenting qualities that might reduce the risk that such difficulties will develop in children who are vulnerable in other ways.
 We are also interested in whether some behaviours develop which are beneficial in the short term but prove to be far less beneficial if they persist longer than the situation warrants.

Shining a light on possible sex differences in the routes to child mental health problems - We are particularly interested to investigate whether the risks and protective factors are the same for boys and girls, because our findings to date have suggested that child mental health problems may arise in different ways in boys and girls. Such differences may well have important implications for the targeting and nature of early interventions that might best be used to help children and families in the future.

The young people in the study are now adolescents and facing the challenges of puberty and the social and academic challenges of secondary school. Adolescence is a time when we see an increase in depression symptoms in girls, the start of the elevated rates of depression in females observed throughout the lifespan. We have expanded the focus of the study to try and understand the risk and protective factors for this increase in emotional problems.

Some of the additional factors that may be particularly important for child and adolescent mental health during this time, include:

  • experiences with social media
  • friendships, bullying and isolation
  • physical activity levels and physical development
  • engaging in risky behaviours
  • physical, hormonal and psychological changes associated with puberty

In the past couple of years we have all experienced a major disruption to our lives from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also collected information from families on the impact that the pandemic had on their lives, and have been collecting repeated questionnaires to allow us to understand the long term mental and social health effects.