Methods: This secondary data analysis used data of children (N=2722) at ages 3 and 5 from the restricted version of the Fragile Family Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). Neighborhood structural factors were measured at children’s age 3 by three indexes: economic disadvantage, residential instability, and ethnic heterogeneity. Two latent neighborhood process factors, social cohesion and social control, were measured at age 3 using two subscales in the FFCWS: The Informal Social Control Scale and the Social Cohesion and Trust Scale. Child maltreatment was measured at children’s age 3 by the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales. Internalizing and externalizing symptoms were measured by the Child’s Behavioral Checklist (CBCL) at age 5. Structural equation modeling was conducted using Mplus 8.0 (Muthen & Muthen, 2015). Missing data were handled using full maximum likelihood.
Results: The structural equation model had a good fit, with CFI = .952, RMSEA = .034 (90% CI = .032, .036), and SRMR = .036. Economic disadvantage directly increased children’s externalizing symptoms (β = .06, p = .02) and ethnic heterogeneity directly increased children’s internalizing symptoms (β = .06, p = .04) at age 5. Higher levels of economic disadvantage and residential instability were associated with a lower level of social cohesion (economic disadvantage: β = -.24, p < .001; residential instability: β = -.07, p = .003), which in turn directly increased both early childhood internalizing and externalizing symptoms (internalizing symptoms: β = -.10, p = .03; externalizing symptoms: β = -.11, p = .001). High levels of neighborhood economic disadvantage and residential instability decreased social cohesion, which increased emotional assault (β = .18, p < .001) and nonviolent discipline (β = .07, p = .02) and further increased internalizing symptoms at age 5 (emotional assault: β = .07, p = .02; nonviolent discipline: β = .09, p = .004).
Conclusion: This study found that (a) economic disadvantages and ethnic heterogeneity directly affected early childhood internalizing and externalizing symptoms and indirectly affected early childhood behavioral problems via social cohesion and child maltreatment experiences; and (b) social cohesion expressed strong direct and indirect effects on early childhood behavioral problems. Findings from this study contribute to the current research by expanding and explaining the mechanisms behind environmental influences and individuals’ developmental problems in early life. This study indicates the need for intervention and prevention efforts that promote social support, connections, and neighborhood communities, alongside policies that support child-friendly communities.