A new Johns Hopkins study finds that the quality of a child’s neighborhood may have significant and long-term effects on his or her behavior through the teen years.
The findings, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, can help inform national, state, and local housing policy and community investment decisions.
Using survey data gathered between 1997 and 2007 on 3,563 children, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that children aged seven- to 12-years- old had significantly more serious behavior problems if they lived in neighborhoods that their parent rated as “poor” for raising children, compared to those living in the “excellent” neighborhoods.
For the study, parents were asked to rate their neighborhoods as either ‘excellent,’ ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ or ‘poor’ for raising children, with 20 being the highest score, for excellent, and zero, for poor.
Neighborhood quality was also rated by independent observers based on five conditions, including deterioration of housing units, neglect of the street, garbage on the street or sidewalk, signs of drug use on the street, and noise outside the home. Their rating scores were essentially the same as those of parents.
The findings show that scores for “externalizing” problem behaviors — or problem behaviors that are directed outward, such as fighting, stealing, destroying property, or refusing to follow rules — were 1.7 points lower among children in “excellent” neighborhoods.
The average problem behavior score was four, with possible values ranging from zero to 20. Parents’ ratings of neighborhood quality were not tied to externalizing behaviors among children six-years-old and younger.
Previous research has shown that externalizing behaviors affect around six to seven percent of children in industrialized western societies, a rate that tends to increase with age. Many children with these problems continue to be disruptive and exhibit problems into adolescence.
Externalizing behaviors may predict more serious adverse outcomes later in life, such as substance abuse, delinquency, and violence, explains study leader Anne Riley, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health.
Throughout the next decade, parents in the study continued to complete questionnaires about their child’s behavior. Adolescents living in neighborhoods rated as “excellent” had additional decreases in externalizing behaviors compared to those living in “poor” quality neighborhoods. Reduced behavioral problems among teens in better neighborhoods were primarily explained by lower levels of parental distress and family conflict.
Although previous studies have linked poor neighborhood quality to a higher risk of behavioral problems, the timing of these neighborhood effects and how neighborhoods affect children’s behavior through their effect on parents’ stress and family conflict has not been previously shown, explains Riley.
An important finding, she adds, is that most caregivers were well aware that they lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t the best environment for raising children. Other research has shown that many are unable to leave due to circumstances such as cost of quality housing, proximity to jobs, or, for minority families, the difficulty of living in unfamiliar communities.
As income inequality has grown over the past several decades, many parents are forced to raise their children in places that feel chaotic or unsafe, circumstances that are far from ideal for development, explains Riley.
Future research is needed to examine whether housing programs currently in place mitigate these factors and lead to fewer externalizing behaviors in at-risk children.
“I think this is a wakeup call for understanding the power of neighborhoods to contribute to the crime and behavior problems that we see in our society,” says Riley. “Our results suggest that neighborhood effects are something that we need to tune into in a much more explicit and purposeful way.”