More child behaviour problems in families who are less wealthy than neighbours

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An analysis of behaviour problems among more than 16,000 3- to 12-year-olds in the UK has shown something that the researchers weren’t expecting. Behavioural problems were more severe among children in higher-income families if their household’s income ranked lower than that of other families in the area. This “income rank” effect was not present in children from lower-income families. Living in financial circumstances that compare unfavourably with others’ seems to have a disruptive effect on some children.

Less surprising was the finding that children have more behavioural problems in general when they live in low-income families, which has been corroborated by many other studies. The researchers also provided the first evidence that low income is especially detrimental to children’s behaviour if their parents aren’t working.

The researchers looked at data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study for 16,532 children, collected through interviews with mothers and fathers (if present).

Because behavioural problems are linked to future negative outcomes, increasing household income for low-income families should help to improve their children’s futures.

On the other hand, the experience of low income rank in higher-income households needs a more “therapeutic” approach – local strategies to reduce the frequency and salience of social comparisons. Such strategies have not yet been developed, however.

Garratt EA, Chandola T, Purdam K & Wood AM (2016), Income and Social Rank Influence UK Children’s Behavioral Problems: A Longitudinal Analysis, Child Development