The Tracking Opportunities and Problems (TOPP) project is a unique study that followed a community-based sample of almost 1,000 Norwegian children and their families from when the children were 18 months old in 1993 until they turned 18.5 years of age in 2011. Information from questionnaires in eight waves of data collection has created a large databank on these children and families. The TOPP study has provided new knowledge about precursors, developmental paths and predictors of both good adaptation and mental health problems.
We talked to the TOPP Principal Investigator, Associate Professor Evalill B. Karevold, who has worked on the project for 16 years.
Dr. Karevold, the TOPP study has been a huge undertaking. Could you summarize for us what the main goals of the project were? The main goals have been to extend our understanding on three important questions about child and adolescent development and the families they live in:
Why do some children from early childhood and through adolescence develop symptoms of emotional distress and norm-breaking behavior, while others develop good mental health and good social skills?
Why do some mothers develop symptoms of mental distress, burnout and illness, while others exhibit good coping styles and wellbeing?
Why do some parents experience relationship breakdowns, while others develop strong partnerships?
The book we have just published “Tracking Opportunities and Problems From Infancy to Adulthood: 20 Years With the TOPP Study” collates the keys findings on these three questions.
You have been involved in the TOPP Study for many years now. Could you tell us how you came to work on the project and what role you have played in the study? I started working with the TOPP study when I got funding for my PhD in 2002. Kristin Schjelderup Mathiesen started the study in 1993 and was the Principal Investigator at that time. By the time I started, data from mothers had been collected at four time points and from children aged 1.5 to 8.5 years. During the first year of my PhD, we decided that we should continue the data collection and include the youths as informants as well, as they were now old enough (12 years) to answer questionnaires by themselves. As we know, young people of this age have many different thoughts and feelings that their parents are not aware of, and also have experiences outside the family, so it was very important for us to hear their voices. From then on, we collected data every second year, when the young people were approximately 12.5, 14.5, 16.5, and 18.5 years old. We were lucky to receive more funding to allow us to develop a questionnaire for the fathers as well, from child age 14.5 and onwards. The data from the TOPP study have now formed the basis for many large and some smaller research projects, including 11 PhD projects and six postdoctoral projects. After my PhD, I got funding for a post doc using data from the TOPP study, and then became the Principal Investigator for some years. Different members of our research group have taken on this role over time, and I am now the Principal Investigator again.
What have been the highlights of running such a unique longitudinal project? The questionnaires that the parents and children have completed over the years are very detailed and provide us with extensive information on many aspects of the respondents themselves, as well as their family and broader contexts. So I would have to say that sitting down, analyzing the data, and seeing different developmental paths appear is a highlight. Furthermore, working with our close, supportive, and knowledgeable research group over so many years has been a really positive experience.
What were some of the challenges in carrying out the project? The participants have done a great job filling out all these questionnaires over so many years. However, there is a lot going on in and outside a family that contributes to both parental and child mental health. To work out which questions we should include, and which should be excluded so that the questionnaires did not get TOO long, has always been challenging. We also wanted to understand what factors led to both stability and changes in different important aspects of the young people’s lives. To be able to follow such changes in a developing person, we needed to ask about the same things, but in ways which were appropriate for the young person’s age. Finding the right questions to cover the same topics but for different age groups can be challenging. Fortunately, researchers working with similar issues in other research groups in Norway, Australia, Sweden, and the United States have generously shared their experiences with us.
The project took place in Norway. Do you think that the results can be generalized to most Western countries? Are there some results that were very particular to Norwegian families? I believe most of the results can be generalized to most Western countries. When we have compared results on topics like the development of externalizing problems or depression with other studies like the Australian Temperament Project, in general we have found similar patterns. However, Norwegian social policies, for instance in regard to supporting parents in combining work with parenthood, are generous compared with many other countries, so our results in these areas may be more country-specific.
If you could give one carry-home message from the study for professionals working with children and adolescents and their families, what would it be? Never underestimate the impact of social support and social context on youth development – factors from the family environment, peers, and other social relationships all seem to make a significant contribution to good mental health, in addition to playing an important role in preventing negative development. In addition, be aware of the child’s individual characteristics, as different temperamental traits lead to these social relationships having quite different impacts.
Dr. Evalill B. Karevold
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway, researches and teaches developmental psychology. Her main field of research is temperament and emotional development in children and adolescents, and how thei family and social context influence such development. She has extensive experience in longitudinal research, including running the TOPP Study for several years.