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Trends in UK family life and in adolescent conduct problems - possible links

OCTOBER 01, 2007

New research published on line in Social Science and Medicine and due for publication in the journal later this month examines the contribution of changes in family life to trends in adolescent conduct problems.   A research team from the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's that includes Dr Stephan Collishaw, Professor Barbara Maughan, and Professor Robert Goodman, carried out the study, together with Professor Andrew Pickles, from the University of Manchester.

Previously the team reported an increase in youth emotional and behavioural problems between 1974 and 1999 (Collishaw et al., 2004).    This new study compares parent ratings of conduct problems, and measures of family type, family income and family size for three nationally representative samples of 15/16-year olds assessed in 1974, 1986 and 1999.   Their aim was to examine the extent to which changes in these aspects of family life contributed to the trends in adolescent conduct problems (e.g. stealing, lying, disobedience, fighting).

The paper shows that:
·    Families are changing:   Families in the UK have changed over the last 50 years– with more single parent and step families, changes in economic wellbeing, and decreasing family size.

·    The relationship between family factors and behaviour is changing: The study showed that there were not only changes in the numbers of young people living in different family groups, but also changes in how these family factors related to young people’s behaviour. For example, the association of low income and conduct problems increased over time, but living in a step family became less strongly associated with youth conduct problems.

·    But these family changes do not fully explain rises in conduct problems: None of the measured changes in family life completely explained trends in youth conduct problems. Indeed, conduct problems increased at a similar rate for both intact and non-intact families and for low income and well-off families.  

The research raises important questions about possible reasons for changes in adolescent mental health and behaviour.   Other factors, not assessed in this study, may be relevant, e.g. quality of family relationships and parenting, peer influences, educational expectations, the transition to adult roles, and other wider social and cultural influences. There is much more to families than just structure and income.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Stephan Collishaw at the Institute of Psychiatry, said: “Although most young people are well adjusted, happy and successful, evidence also shows an increase in young people’s emotional distress and rates of conduct problems. Understanding the causes of these trends is an important priority. The findings of our study demonstrate that there is not a straightforward connection between changes in family type and income and an increase in youth antisocial behaviour. More research is needed to focus on other possible explanations, including possible changes in family relationships, friendships and peer groups, and other broader social influences.”
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