BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS IN YOUNG CHILDREN: New evidence on the influence of parents

Policy interventions targeting a stressful home environment can help to reduce the wide inequality in children’s behavioural problems at age 11. That is the implication of research by Gloria Moroni, Cheti Nicoletti and Emma Tominey, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.

Analysing data from a sample of children born in 2000 and 2001 in the UK, the study finds that harsh parenting, poor mental health of the mother and limited time spent in interactions between children and parents can all create a stressful environment for children, and amplify their behavioural disorders.

Inequalities in child behavioural problems are known to emerge at very young ages, persist across the lifetime and predict later life outcomes in the labour market, health and criminal behaviour. The new research assesses whether it is possible to narrow these gaps in behavioural problems in late childhood with interventions targeted at specific parental inputs.

Children’s behaviour is measured by considering a child’s ability or inability to understand other people’s feelings, to cope with their own feelings and behaviour, and to get along with their peers at age 6. The study finds that:

  • Children with deeper behavioural issues at age 6 are more sensitive to stressful experiences, such as maternal stress, harsh parenting and lack of interaction with their parents.
  • Ultimately, this implies that children’s behavioural issues at age 11 increase for those with a stressful experience at home, especially if they already had some behavioural issues at age 6.

These new findings are consistent with the diathesis-stress framework introduced by researchers in psychology, whereby child behavioural disorders can develop from a predisposition to the disorder combined with a stressful experience.

The empirical findings also suggest that the gap in behavioural problems at age 11 between children who were and were not already experiencing behavioural issues at age 6 can be reduced up to 34% for boys and 52% for girls. This can be done via interventions aiming to help parents to adopt less harsh parenting, to improve maternal mental health and to increase the time that parents spend interacting with their children.

Improved maternal psychological health, less harsh parenting and increased interactions between children and parents have the most beneficial effect for children with predisposition to behavioural disorders at age 6 who are deprived of such parental inputs. But increases in parental material investments, education and income do not seem to have any amplified beneficial effect for children with behavioural issues at age 6.

In conclusion, the study suggests that the most vulnerable children – those who are most predisposed to behavioural disorders at age 6 – are the ones that would benefit the most from interventions aiming at increasing parental inputs, especially when deprivation of these inputs lead to a stressful home environment. This implies that such interventions would be effective in reducing inequalities in children’s behavioural problems in late childhood.