Poor neighborhoods' influence on parents may raise preschool children's risk of problems

February 07, 2008

Children who live in poor neighborhoods may be at increased risk of verbal and behavioral problems. A new study suggests that for some of their parents, living in poor neighborhoods is associated with poorer mental health, poorer family relations, and less consistent and more punitive parenting. The study aimed to determine the relationships between neighborhood characteristics and parenting, and between parenting and children's preschool performance.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Ottawa, Johns Hopkins University, the University of British Columbia, and Statistics Canada, the study appears in the January/February 2008 issue of Child Development.

"This study does not show that poverty leads to bad parenting, which in turn leads to poor outcomes in children," according to Dafna E. Kohen, adjunct professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine at the University of Ottawa, senior research analyst at Statistics Canada, and the study's lead author. "Rather, this study shows that in neighborhoods where there is socioeconomic disadvantage, children's verbal and behavioral outcomes are influenced by poor parental mental health and parenting behaviors."

Children's neighborhoods play an important role in their development, yet little is known about how the characteristics of those neighborhoods affect young children. Existing research suggests that children who live in poor neighborhoods are at greater risk of problems when entering school and of behavioral and emotional difficulties. This study goes beyond the existing evidence to explore characteristics of neighborhoods and how those characteristics relate to the well-being of parents and children.

The study examined 3,528 preschoolers from a nationally representative sample of Canadian children. Specifically, the researchers looked at characteristics such as neighborhood cohesion, or the sense of trust among neighbors, and the sense of community organization (whether or not residents can get together to address community issues or problems, for example). They also looked at family factors such as mothers' mental health and how families function, and parenting behaviors such as reading and discipline. And they measured the children's verbal ability and assessed how their parents rated their children's behavior.

The researchers found that there is less neighborhood cohesion or mutual trust in poor neighborhoods, which, in turn, can be associated with poorer mental health in parents and greater family dysfunction. Furthermore, these factors are associated with less consistent and more punitive parenting, the study found. Punitive parenting is associated with a greater incidence of behavior problems in children. Families living in poor neighborhoods also are less likely to read to their children at home, and children who are not read to by their parents have lower scores on tests of verbal ability.

"Findings from this study demonstrate that the impact of living in a disadvantaged neighborhood exerts its influence through both neighborhood and family mechanisms," according to Kohen. "Children benefit from parents who are physically and emotionally healthy and live in safe neighborhoods where they trust their neighbors. Among the implications of these findings are community-based initiatives to promote literacy activities and parenting behaviors for the healthy development of children and their families."
The study was funded, in part, by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 1, Neighborhood Disadvantage: Pathways of Effects for Young Children by Kohen, DE (Statistics Canada and University of Ottawa), Leventhall, T (Tufts University, formerly with Johns Hopkins University), Dahinten, VS (University of British Columbia), and McIntosh, CN (Statistics Canada). Copyright 2008 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

Society for Research in Child Development

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