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U.S., Great Britain Share Risk Factors for Child Behavior Problems

New research from North Carolina State University shows that the United States and Great Britain share common risk factors that increase the likelihood of behavioral problems in children – and that Britain’s broader social welfare programs don’t appear to mitigate those risks.

The researchers – from NC State, California State University Northridge and the University of Illinois (UI) – evaluated data from a 1994 study of children between the ages of five and 13 in the U.S. and a 1991 study of children in the same age range from England, Scotland and Wales.

Researchers found that stronger home environments decrease the likelihood of behavior problems in both countries.

In both societies, researchers found that male children, children with health problems and children with divorced mothers were more likely to have behavioral problems.

“We also found that stronger home environments – those that are intellectually stimulating, nurturing and physically safe – decrease the likelihood of behavior problems in both countries,” says Dr. Toby Parcel, a professor of sociology at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work.

“We wanted to see whether the role of parents was equally important in both societies,” Parcel says, “because the argument has been made that more developed welfare states – such as Great Britain – can make the role of parents less important, by providing additional supports that can help compensate for situations where households have more limited resources.

“This study tells us that parents are important in households, regardless of the strength of the welfare state.”

While the risk factors are common between the two countries, there are some differences. For example, “family structure” effects were more pronounced in Great Britain. Family structure, in this context, refers to marital status and family size. British families with a single mother or multiple children are at higher risk of having a child with behavior problems – the more children in the family, the greater the risk.

The paper, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” is published online in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and was co-authored by Dr. Lori Ann Campbell of Cal State Northridge and Dr. Wenxuan Zhong of UI. The research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

The researchers are now looking to see how shared risk factors may influence child cognition and academic achievement across these two societies. Parcel and Campbell have previously shown that parents are critical to the creation of strong home environments in both the U.S. and Great Britain.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain”

Authors: Toby L. Parcel, North Carolina State University; Lori Ann Campbell, California State University Northridge; Wenxuan Zhong, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published: online, Journal of Health and Social Behavior

Abstract: We analyze the effects of family capital on child behavior problems in the United States and Great Britain by comparing a longitudinal survey sample of 5- to 13-year-old children from the 1994 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s (N = 3,864) with a similar sample of children from the 1991 National Child Development Study “British Child” (N = 1,430). Findings suggest that in both societies, male children, those with health problems, and those whose mothers are divorced are at increased risk for behavior problems, while those with stronger home environments are at reduced risk. Family structure effects are more pervasive in Great Britain than in the United States, although some of these findings are a function of our racially diverse U.S. sample. We conclude that parents are important in both societies in promoting child social adjustment, and evidence that the more developed welfare state in Great Britain may substitute for capital at home is weak.

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