Child and adolescent mental well-being is an important and often overlooked issue that has serious implications for the health and development of young people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 in 5 children and adolescents globally suffer from a mental health disorder or condition, which is expected to increase (World Health Organization, 2021). In Qatar, the Qatar National Mental Health Survey reported that about 20.7% of Qatar’s school-aged children and adolescents had experienced mental health issues in the past year (Amin et al., 2021; Mahgoub et al., 2022). This highlights the urgent need for improved mental health services for children and adolescents in the country.
However, it is not just the prevalence of mental health issues that should be of concern; the consequences of not addressing these issues effectively and promptly can be extremely damaging for both the individual and society. Mental health problems in childhood and adolescence can lead to poor academic and social functioning, substance abuse, and even an increased risk of suicide. Moreover, the burden of these issues can be lifelong, as the effects of poor mental health in adolescence can have long-term consequences in adulthood.
Given the prevalence and potential consequences of mental health issues among children and adolescents, we must take immediate action to ensure that all young people have access to the resources and support they need to thrive. This essay will critically evaluate the evidence for biological and social influences on individuality to better understand these factors’ impact on children’s mental well-being. In particular, it will explore developmental theories, the role of nature and nurture, and the evidence for biological and social influences on individual differences. It will also debate and critically appraise the evidence that explores children’s mental well-being to develop a better understanding of the role that biological and social influences play in the development of mental health issues. By critically analyzing the evidence, this essay will provide insight into the factors that contribute to the development of mental health issues in children and adolescents, helping to inform interventions that can improve their mental well-being.
An Overview of Children’s Psychological Development Theories
Several developmental theories are coined to help explain different developmental stages of children’s psychological development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is widely accepted as the most comprehensive theory of children’s psychological development (Carpendale, Lewis, and Müller, 2020; Perrucci & Kohnstamm, 2017). Piaget believed that children’s cognitive abilities develop through a series of stages, each stage being more complex than the last. The four main stages are:
- The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to around two years of age, where they learn about the world using their senses and motor skills.
- Between the ages of two and seven is considered the preoperational stage. During this stage, children depict things and occurrences with symbols and language. However, they cannot analyze these symbols.
- The concrete operating stage lasts between the ages of seven and eleven. During this stage, children start to reason logically about real things that have happened. They are unable to reason abstractly, nevertheless.
- The formal operational stage, which lasts from around age eleven forward, is the last stage of development. Children develop their ability to reason logically and abstractly throughout this time (Carpendale, Lewis, and Müller, 2020; Perrucci & Kohnstamm, 2017).
The evidence base for Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is mainly observational, with Piaget carrying out several experiments with children to support his theory (Ph.D., n.d.). However, there are several criticisms of Piaget’s theory, including that his experiments were often conducted on middle-class, Western children and may not be generalizable to other cultures (Ph.D., n.d.). In addition, some researchers have argued that children can think logically about abstract concepts at an earlier age than Piaget suggested.
Whereas Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is a comprehensive theory that looks at how people grow and change throughout their lives. It stresses the importance of identity in personality development and is made up of eight stages, each characterized by a different conflict. The first four stages (trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, and industry vs. inferiority) occur during childhood, and the last four occur during adulthood(Orenstein & Lewis, 2021).
The first stage is trust vs. mistrust, which occurs during infancy. During this stage, the infant develops a basic sense of trust or mistrust in the world around them based on the quality of care they receive from their primary caregiver. The second stage is autonomy vs. shame and doubt, which occurs early in infancy. The child starts to gain self-control and independence during this period. The third stage is initiative vs. guilt, which occurs during middle childhood(Orenstein & Lewis, 2021). The child begins to take the initiative and assert themselves. The fourth stage is industry vs. inferiority, and it occurs during adolescence. During this stage, adolescents become more aware of their social comparisons and begin forming a sense of self-esteem.
The fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion, which occurs during young adulthood. Young adults try to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their life. Intimacy vs. isolation is the sixth stage, which happens as adults. The adult attempts to establish intimate, close relationships with others. Generativity vs. stagnation, which takes place in middle adulthood, is the seventh stage. The middle-aged adult is now concerned with passing on something to the following generation(Orenstein & Lewis, 2021). The eighth and final stage is ego integrity vs. despair, which happens in late adulthood. This stage is when elderly adults reflect on their lives and assess their accomplishments.
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development has been widely accepted due to its comprehensive approach to understanding how people grow and change throughout their lives. However, the theory has come under criticism for lacking empirical evidence. Critics have argued that Erikson’s theory is based largely on his clinical observations, often subjective, and Freudian theory, which has been largely discredited(Cherry, 2022). Additionally, the theory relies heavily on anthropological research, which is limited in scope and often needs to reflect people’s experiences in different cultures and societies. In contrast, earlier theories of human development, such as those proposed by Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, have been more widely accepted because they were based on more empirical evidence. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was based on his clinical observations and psychological experiments, while Piaget’s cognitive-developmental theory was based on his systematic observations of children and his experiments with them. As such, these theories have been more widely accepted because they were based on a larger body of empirical evidence.
Attachment theory is a psychological framework for understanding the dynamics of both long- and short-term interpersonal interactions (Negrini, 2018). The idea explains why people want to keep up intimate ties with others and how encounters with important people in one’s life influence these relationships. John Bowlby created attachment theory in the 1950s, essentially an evolutionary and ethological hypothesis.
The core idea behind attachment theory is that for early infants to feel comfortable and build a positive sense of self, they must develop a strong emotional connection with the primary caregiver. According to attachment theory, a child’s future growth and mental health are greatly influenced by the strength of their relationship with their primary caregiver.
Four main types of attachment bonds can form between a child and a caregiver, categorized as secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant, and disorganized (Negrini, 2018). A sense of safety and trust characterizes secure attachment in the relationship, and the child feels comfortable seeking comfort and support from the caregiver. A mix of distrust and insecurity characterizes insecure-ambivalent attachment, and the child may be clingy and demanding attention. A child with insecure-avoidant attachment presents as autonomous and disinterested in personal relationships. The hallmark of a disorganized connection is a child who seems lost and bewildered in their relationships.
Attachment theory has important implications for our understanding of child development, as well as for our understanding of how adults form and maintain close relationships (Negrini, 2018). Attachment theory can help us understand why some children have difficulty forming attachments and why some adults have difficulty maintaining close intimate relationships.
There are some criticisms of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, and attachment theory. Piaget’s theory assumes that children progress through a series of cognitive stages, which is not necessarily true(Saracho, 2021). This theory has also been criticized for its need for more attention to social and cultural influences on development. For example, research suggests that children from different cultures may experience different stages of development and learn differently. Erikson’s theory has also been criticized for its lack of attention to individual differences and its emphasis on the role of culture in development(Saracho, 2021). Additionally, Erikson’s theory has been criticized for being too general and universal to be applied to all individuals. Finally, attachment theory has been criticized for its focus on the mother-child relationship. Although attachment theory is important, it does not take into account other relationships that may also be important for development, such as those between siblings or between peers(Fitzgerald, 2020). The evidence base for attachment theory is primarily observational and anecdotal. Bowlby admitted that a few case studies only supported the idea and that further study was required to establish the theory’s viability (Negrini, 2018). Since Bowlby’s initial formulation of the theory, much research has been conducted on attachment and attachment styles. Much of this research has been conducted with animals, and much of it has been conducted with human infants and children (Harlow, 2019).
An Overview of Nature Vs. Nurture Developmental Theories
Nature vs nurture is a long-standing debate within the field of psychology concerning the relative importance of nature (i.e., genes, biology) and nurture (i.e., environment, experiences) in shaping human behaviour (Jackson, Llewellyn, and Smith, 2020; Marotz and Allen, 2022; Miller, 2016; Music, 2016; Tistarelli et al., 2020). Although there is no clear consensus, the debate has traditionally been framed as a dichotomy, with nature and nurture seen as opposing forces.
According to nature theorists, genetic factors dominate the development process, with a child’s genes determining their development. Nurture theorists, on the other hand, hold that development is predominantly influenced by environmental variables, with children’s experiences and interactions with their surroundings having a significant impact on their development (Jackson, Llewellyn, and Smith, 2020; Marotz and Allen, 2022; Miller, 2016; Music, 2016; Tistarelli et al., 2020). Nature theorists contend that a set of intrinsic traits at birth predetermines a child’s growth. According to these scholars, a child’s growth is mainly influenced by their genes and little by their surroundings. One of the most influential nature theorists was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget(Piaget,1936), who argued that children are born with a set of mental structures which guide their thinking and understanding. Piaget believed that these mental structures develop in a fixed sequence and that children cannot develop new abilities until they have mastered the previous stage.
However, proponents of the nurture theory contend that young children’s experiences and interactions with their environment significantly determine how they grow. These theorists believe that children are born with a blank slate and that their experiences shape whom they become (Jackson, Llewellyn, and Smith, 2020; Marotz and Allen, 2022; Miller, 2016; Music, 2016; Tistarelli et al., 2020). American psychologist John B. Watson, who claimed that children lack innate brain structures and are entirely changed by their experiences, was one of the essential nurture theorists (Cherry, 2020).
Nature refers to a person’s inherited characteristics determined at conception. This includes both the physical traits of a person, such as their hair and eye colour and their personality traits, such as whether they are shy or outgoing (Bucx, 2018; Cherry, 2020). Nurture, on the other hand, refers to the environmental influences a person is exposed to after birth. This includes things like how they are raised, the people they interact with, and their experiences.
Nature has a significant impact on a child’s growth. How Hereditynetics, and brain development. The influence of how a child grows term “heritage” describes how traits are passed down from one generation to the next. This can be seen in the physical traits passed down from generation to generation. However, heredity also plays a role in behavioural traits and mental abilities. Studies of twins have shown a vital genetic component to many aspects of development, including intelligence, personality, and even mental health (Bucx, 2018; Cherry, 2020). Genetics studies how traits are passed down from generation to generation. This includes looking at the specific genes that are involved in the development of a particular trait. Genetics can also be used to predict how likely it is for a child to develop a particular trait. For example, if a child has a parent with a history of mental illness, they may be more likely to develop a mental illness themselves.
Brain development is another critical factor in child development. The brain is responsible for all bodily functions, including thought, emotion, and behaviour. The brain goes through many changes during development, which can significantly impact how a child develops (Bucx, 2018; Cherry, 2020). For example, if a child has damage to the parts of the brain responsible for language, they may have difficulty learning to speak. All of these factors – heredity, genetics, and brain development – play a role in shaping a child’s development. Nature has a profound influence on who we are and how we develop.
The environment, experiences, and learning that children are exposed to can all influence their development in various ways. A child’s development can be strongly impacted by the environment in which they are raised. If a child is raised in a safe and secure environment, they are more likely to develop a sense of trust and security (Porges et al., 2019; Roberts, Newcombe, and Davids, 2018). This can help them feel more confident and secure in themselves, leading to better mental and emotional development. Conversely, if a child is raised in a chaotic or unstable environment, this can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety. This can impact a child’s ability to develop healthy relationships and lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Experiences also play a role in child development. Positive experiences, such as love, care, and attention, can help children feel secure and develop a sense of self-worth. These experiences can also help children to develop emotionally and mentally. Negative experiences, such as neglect or abuse, can harm children (Porges et al., 2019; Roberts, Newcombe, and Davids, 2018). These experiences can lead to various problems, including mental health, behavioural, and relationship problems. Learning is also an essential part of child development. Children learn from the people around them and the things they see and experience. This learning can help children develop their beliefs and values and understand the world around them.
The evidence base for nature vs. nurture developmental theories is mainly observational, with researchers carrying out experiments and studies to support their theories. The evidence suggests that both nature and nurture play a role in development(Cherry, 2020a). In most cases, it is likely that the two interact to determine a child’s overall development. For instance, a child’s environment may influence the expression of certain genes, while certain genes may influence a child’s response to their environment. Furthermore, some studies suggest that the influence of both nature and nurture on development may differ depending on the trait being studied. For instance, research has found that the influence of genes may be more important for physical traits, while environmental factors may be more important for psychological traits(Cherry, 2020a). Overall, the evidence suggests that nature and nurture are both important factors in development and that they complement each other. It is likely that the two interact to determine a child’s overall development, and the influence of each factor may differ depending on the trait being studied. Therefore, it is important to consider both nature and nurture when studying development.
Amin, A., McCashin, D., Abdelrahman, M., Al-Adwan, D. and Hasan, Y. (2021). The psychological effects of perceived threat, national identity and self-esteem on the well-being of Qatari youth during the blockade. [online] doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-305119/v1.
Cherry, K. (2020a). Biography of Psychologist John B. Watson. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/john-b-watson-biography-1878-1958-2795550.
Cherry, K. (2020b). The age old debate of nature vs. nurture. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-nature-versus-nurture-2795392.
Mahgoub, Y., Daher-Nashif, S., Al-Shebly, R., Wali, H.S., Khan, A., Almarkhi, A., Al-Motawa, M., AlObaidan, G. and Al-Muhannadi, Z. (2022). Prevalence and Determinants of Mental Health Problems and Mental Health Stigma Among Medical Students of Different Nationalities in Qatar. Advances in Medical Education and Practice, Volume 13, pp.969–979. doi:10.2147/amep.s371053.
Fitzgerald, M., 2020. Criticism of Attachment Theory, 2020. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael-Fitzgerald6/publication/338696030_Criticism_of_Attachment_Theory_2020/links/5e259b634585150ad4b065bf/Criticism-of-Attachment-Theory-2020
Saracho, O.N. (2021). Theories of Child Development and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care. Early Childhood Education Journal. [online] doi:10.1007/s10643-021-01271-5.
World Health Organization (2021). Adolescent Mental Health. [online] World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health.