Storm warning

6th July 2007 at 01:00
Differing opinions of a child's personality can be crucial when it comes to predicting problems later. You have a vital role to play by spotting early signs, says Oliver James

Parents and teachers do not always see eye to eye about pupils. Mostly, this concerns academic performance, but sometimes it's about the child's mental state. There's that clever Goth girl who's been into death metal a little longer than you feel is good for her (indeed, believe it or not, there are studies showing a strong association between teen Gothicism and suicide attempts). Or maybe you reckon that lad in your class is pathologically unassertive. Who is right and how much does it matter?

The most reliable assessment of mental health does come from independent, trained researchers. But, sometimes, discrepancies between non-clinicians can be revealing. In general, if adolescent children have similar perceptions of how deliquent they are to their parents, it does not predict there is a likelihood of that child getting into trouble with the police.

However, when parents regard their adolescent as delinquent a lot of thieving, violence, lying whereas the child does not agree, the risk of their getting into trouble with the police when measured a few years later is nine times greater. This makes the discrepancy hugely important.

Sometimes, discrepant perceptions between teacher and parent are because the child reveals different aspects of themselves at home and school. Or it can be that parent and teacher interpret similar behaviour differently. Who is right can depend on what aspect of the child is being considered. For instance, some studies have shown that parents' perceptions of their sons' behaviour problems are more reliable than teachers'. However, parents can have distorted judgment. If they are not very accepting, or if a mother is depressed or anxious, teachers are often more reliable.

A new Dutch study of nearly 1,000 children has dug deeper. The parents and teachers of the children were asked to assess them when aged four to 12.

The researchers then used a variety of sources to assess how mentally ill the children were 14 years later, aged 18 to 26. Different aspects of what both parents and teachers said about the children predicted the same outcomes in the case of many problems. Drunkenness in adulthood was predicted if the teacher had assessed the child as withdrawn, whereas in the case of parents, it was predicted where they viewed the child as having had physical or social problems when young. On the whole, parental assessments were better predictors than teachers'.

Teachers tended to report lower levels of depression or aggression most parents probably know the inner lives of their children better. However, there was one crucial finding. If parents in the study regarded the child as much more aggressive than the teacher, the risk for suicide attempts or self harming in later life increased eightfold, compared with similar cases.

So next time you hear a parent saying: "You say he isn't particularly aggressive when he's here, but you should see what he's like at home", take it seriously. The reason for the discrepancy in this kind of case may be that both child and family are isolated and lonely. Informing their social worker or psychiatric agencies could do everyone a favour. The message is that, when you find yourself disagreeing about their personality, it could signal storm clouds ahead that you may be able to help avert

Oliver James is the author of Affluenza How to be Successful and Stay Sane. The 2nd edition of They F*** You Up How to Survive Family Life is out now


Teen Gothicism and self-harm: Young, R. et al, 2006, BMJ, 332, 1058-61.

Discrepancies between parents and teens: Achenbach, T.M., 1991, Manual for the youth self-report and 1991 profiles, University of Vermont.

Dutch study: Ferdinand, R.F. et al, 2007, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 115, 48-55

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