KIDS: HEALTHIER, WEALTHIER, AND YET WORSE OFF
Report Highlights Increased Dangers Facing Children
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, SEPT. 11, 2011 (Zenit.org).- A report on the welfare of Australian children, released this week, found that while today’s generation is growing up in a healthier and wealthier society there are a number of serious problems affecting some groups of kids.
The report, “For Kid’s Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People,” was commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby. The author, Patrick Parkinson, is a law professor at Sydney University and has written books on family law and child abuse.
The report started by noting that Australia ranks highly on indices of social development, levels of education and economic well-being. Yet, the overall levels conceal what are increasingly serious problems for many children.
There has been what the report terms “a dramatic increase” in reports of child abuse and neglect, together with a substantial increase in the numbers of children placed in child protection under the care of the state during the last 15 years. Population growth and an increased reporting of abuse are not sufficient to explain the growth in these reports.
The higher levels of abuse and neglect affect all socio-economic levels, but are particularly evident in the Indigenous population with the rate of children in care being almost 10 times that of non-Indigenous children.
Mental health disorders in children have also increased notably, with a large increase in the number of children on anti-depressant drugs. “The speed of the deterioration in the mental health of children and young people is very concerning,” the report commented.
Self-harm, binge drinking, juvenile crime, risky sexual behavior and teen pregnancy are additional areas where children today are worse off compared to the mid-90s.
The report observed that these problems with today’s children are far from being confined to Australia. International studies show a serious deterioration in the mental health of young people in Western countries.
One study cited by the report came out in the United States in 2010. It compared college students between 1938 and 2007. The researchers found that each generation experienced poorer mental health than the previous one. By 2007 students were five times as likely to suffer problems than in 1938. According to the study the greater willingness to acknowledge mental health problems in recent times is not sufficient to explain the dramatic increase.
How can we explain this deterioration in well-being? The report acknowledged that finding the causes in such events is problematic and that correlation is not causation. Other studies on this trend have pointed to changes in family structures, youth unemployment, and greater materialism and individualism.
Parkinson, however, pointed to one factor, that of family conflict and breakdown, as being a particularly important cause. Living in a family other than that of the two biological parents before the age of 16 is well-documented as being associated with a wide range of adverse results for children’s well-being.
Some people consider that the reason for this is that the adults who form stable marriages tend to be more well-adjusted and better off economically, so it is not so much the question of family structures but rather the personal characteristics of the parents that is the deciding factor.
Although this might be true to some extent the report quoted research that said studies using sophisticated statistical controls, including genetic factors, point in the direction of family breakdown being a significant cause of problems for children, rather than it just being the quality of the adults.
In Scotland a study found that young people in 2006 reported poorer family relationships compared to 1987. It was carried out to find the cause of a substantial increase in psychological distress by 15-year-olds.
Another study, in the United States, followed the experiences of 2,000 married people over 15 years. It found that in marriages with high levels of conflict there were more problems in the relations between parents and children. Marital unhappiness had a negative impact of the children’s well-being. Divorce also had a deleterious effect.
Other studies show that divorce is a significant risk factor for children’s emotional state and academic performance. One American study also found a connection between parental divorce and the life span of their children. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier than those from intact marriages.
Moreover, Parkinson pointed out, parental conflict and tensions don’t necessarily end with separation and can sometimes even increase, with arguments about the dividing of assets, parenting arrangements and child support.
When it comes to lone-parent families Parkinson referred to a large Australian study that found higher levels of conflict in step-families and single parent families than in intact ones. Step-families in particular stood out for being a source of tension.
Another Australian study looked at the results of divorce on the adult lives of the children whose parents had separated. On all measures of adverse outcomes the children who had experienced divorce had worse outcomes. These ranged from precocious sexual activity, cohabitation and childbirth before the age of 20, and educational results.
One of the results of divorce that has a big impact on children is that many of them have little contact with their father following the separation. One study carried out in 2001 reported that 36% of fathers had not seen their youngest child in the last 12 months.
Depression and poor results at school are associated in adolescents who have infrequent contact with their divorced father, independently of how close they are to their mothers.
Multiple international studies have demonstrated that child abuse and neglect is much more common in children whose parents have separated. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies child abuse in lone-parent families is about two and half times than would be usual. Only a quarter of all child abuse occurs to children in intact families, a much lower proportion than would be expected, given that three-quarters of children live in intact families.
When new male partners come into the household of lone-parent children, particularly girls are at a much greater risk of sexual abuse. One study in San Francisco found that one in six girls who had grown up with a stepfather was abused, compared to one in 40 girls abused by their biological father.
Even if the mother remains single, her children still suffer. Often the economic situation is difficult, and the family will have to move to a poorer neighborhood. Changing schools and losing friends puts a big strain on children.
“Efforts at preventing child abuse and neglect, and tackling the growing problem of adolescent mental health, are likely to be of limited effectiveness unless, as a society, we can reverse the deterioration in the social environment in which children grow up,” Parkinson concluded.
He is hardly alone in pointing to problems due to family instability. Just after his report was published, the London School of Economics announced the results of a study of 9,500 men born in 1958. Boys who grew up without a father were 4% to 5% more likely to father a child before the age of 23 than those who continued to live with a male parent, the Telegraph newspaper reported Sept. 7.
Parkinson’s report included a number of recommendations to strengthen families. They included better marriage preparation, programs to help parents care for their children better, and greater support for community groups that aid families. It can only be hoped that attention will be paid to this report, and the many like it, that show how vital it is for society to work on helping families.