Child conduct problems and socio-economic status

This project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, aimed to understand the key reasons for young people developing conduct problems, with a view to developing interventions to help.

Teenagers graffiti on a wall

Conduct problems during childhood and adolescence, such as fighting, lying and stealing, impact upon wellbeing and can influence young people’s opportunities as they grow up. This also has important social implications for victims, local communities and wider society, as well as financial costs.

The social gradient whereby children from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to exhibit conduct problems is well documented. However, the reasons for this gradient aren’t fully understood.

Conduct problems present a substantial challenge to families, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds. We're working to find out why this is, so that policy-makers are best informed on how to reduce this social inequality."

Professor Richard Rowe

Department of Psychology

Today, lead researcher, Professor Richard Rowe from the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield will share the results of a three-year, Nuffield Foundation funded project into this area at a dissemination event in London. As part of this, Professor Rowe and the team will highlight their findings of the negative impacts of child conduct problems on broader family functioning.

What did we do?

The team systematically reviewed longitudinal research studies examining the mechanisms of social inequality in conduct problems. This highlighted data supporting the Family Stress Model which suggests a series of steps whereby low socio-economic status impacts parental mental health and family functioning, which in-turn leads to sub-optimal parenting and then to conduct problems in young people. 

The review also highlighted methodological limitations in the existing literature that reduce confidence in the validity of the processes identified to date. 

Following this, the team carried out their own analysis of the longitudinal Mental Health in Children and Young People 1999 survey. We addressed factors included in the Family Stress Model and a number of other potential processes that might link low socio-economic status to conduct problems. 

What did we find?

We found that lower income predicted future conduct problems but didn’t find evidence of the processes that explained social inequality in conduct problems. This highlights the need for future studies to explore alternative processes that link family socio-economic status to conduct problems in young people. 

Our results also highlighted that conduct problems have a negative effect on the future everyday lives of children, parents, and relationships within the family. Therefore, our findings underscore the need to prioritise interventions to reduce conduct problems in order to address these substantial societal challenges.

Project team

  • Professor Richard Rowe
  • Dr Nora McIntyre (University of Southampton)
  • Dr Chris Stride
  • Professor Barbara Maughan (King’s College London)
  • Dr Patrycja Piotrowska (University of Leicester)

More information and outputs from our project

Scientific report on this work: Rowe, et al., (2022). Social inequalities in young people’s conduct problems: informing intervention development. Download the full report (1.1MB).

Nuffield Foundation project overview: Socio-economic status and child antisocial behaviour. Read more here.

Open access paper: Piotrowska PJ, Stride CB, Maughan B, Ford T, McIntyre NA, Rowe R (2022). Understanding the relationship between family income and conduct problems: findings from the mental health of children and young people survey. Psychological Medicine 1–8. Read the full article.

This work was funded by The Nuffield Foundation - grant number KID/42423. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being.

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