Methods: This cross-sectional study analyzed secondary data of 3,036 3-year children from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). The neighborhood environment scale is an 8-item scale, which measures mother’s perceptions about disorganized neighborhood environment. Children’s early childhood externalizing symptoms were measured by the Child Behavior Checklist aggressive behavior and destructive behavior subscales (14 and 7 items respectively; Achenbach, 1992). Parental stress was measured by a 12 items scale used in the FFCWS. Child physical abuse was measured using 5 items of the original Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales (CTSPC) (Straus, Hamby, Finkelhor, Moore, & Runyan, 1998). Control variables included household poverty, mother’s age when giving birth, education level, mother’s level of depression, relationship with child’s biological father at child’s age three, and child’s temperament score at age three. Structural Equation Model (SEM) was conducted using Mplus v.8.0 (Muthen & Muthen, 2015) to answer the research questions. Mean-and variance-adjusted weighted least squares (WLSMV) was used for estimating categorical outcome variables.
Results: The model fit of the structural equation model was good: CFI=0.952 and RMSEA=0.030. Neighborhood risks directly affected both aggressive (B=0.106, p<0.001) and destructive (B=0.099, p<0.001) behaviors. Parental stress and physical abuse separately mediated the influences of neighborhood risks on children’s aggressive and destructive behaviors. Moreover, the pathways from neighborhood risk through parental stress and physical abuse to children’s aggressive (B=0.092, p<0.001) and destructive (B=0.082, p<0.001) behaviors were significantly strong.
Conclusions: Our study expands upon existing literature by explaining how a negative neighborhood environment may increase externalizing problems in early childhood and the role of parental stress and physical abuse in this process. The findings highlight the potential of neighborhood-level interventions in screening for and treating early childhood externalizing behaviors. In areas where there are high levels of neighborhood disorganization, screenings for young children that include questions specifically related to externalizing behaviors, such as the Ages and Stages Questionnaires: Social Emotional (Squires, Bricker, & Twombly, 2002) may be particularly useful. Given the pathways of effects through both parental stress and physical abuse, programming in highly disorganized neighborhoods must also attend specifically to the needs of parents. Providing parents with programming designed to decrease their stress levels, for example, will likely impact young children’s externalizing behaviors. The present results further reinforce the need for safe, healthy housing for all, but especially for those parenting young children.