Certain experiences in childhood including parental separation due to incarceration or divorce, parental substance use and mental health problems, and family violence increase the risk for a series of significant health issues in children. Increased exposure to these negative experiences is associated with early childhood behavioral problems, including externalizing and internalizing problems. Living in a disadvantaged neighborhood and neighborhood disorder are associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) above and beyond individual attributes. Additionally, children from different racial backgrounds have varying likelihoods of living in challenging neighborhoods. The current study investigates the relationships between neighborhood disorder, ACEs, and internalizing problems. This study also examines racial differences within these relationships.
Drawing data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a secondary data analysis was conducted on a sample of 3,001 mothers of children living in 20 urban cities in the United States. Neighborhood disorder was measured at age 3 by 8 items regarding the mother’s perception of neighborhood problems on a 1–4 scale, ACEs were measured at age 3 by nine different types of childhood adversity, and childhood internalizing problems were measured at age 5 by a 12-item subscale of Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Structural equation modeling (SEM) was conducted to explore the process by which neighborhood disorder influences child’s internalizing problems via family-level ACEs. Multiple group analysis was employed to test whether the pathways from neighborhood disorder to child internalizing problems varied by race of the child.
Neighborhood disorder was associated with child internalizing problems through child ACEs. The impact of neighborhood disorder on child compromised self-concept was fully mediated by ACEs. The effect of neighborhood disorder on child anxiety and depressed mood was only partially mediated by ACEs.
There was a significant indirect effect of neighborhood disorder on child’s internalizing behavior through maltreatment ACEs for all three races. The indirect effect of neighborhood disorder on child’s internalizing behavior via non-maltreatment ACEs was found to be significant for white and black children, but not for Hispanic children. Significant racial difference of neighborhood indirect effects was found between white and Hispanic children.
Conclusions and Implications:
Given that our findings illustrate both neighborhood risks and family mechanisms as significant predictors of child internalizing problems during early childhood, intervention efforts occurring at different levels of the social ecology (i.e., family- and community- levels) appear to be a promising strategy for promoting mental well-being in young children. In particular, the direct association between neighborhood disorder and child’s anxiety and depressed mood shown in our study underscores the need for moving from an individual psychopathology perspective to a broader, community-based, macro approach to ensure healthy development of young children. For example, advocating for policy changes to address the structural and systemic basis of neighborhood disorder and problems to build a healthier, safer community may be important in reducing internalizing symptoms among children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Finally, our findings on racial differences highlight the need for culturally sensitive programming to address child internalizing problems.