Background: Extensive research has identified risk factors for problem behaviour in childhood. However, most of this research has focused on isolated variables, ignoring possible additive influences. The purpose of this study was to examine whether risk factors for problem behaviour act in a cumulative manner, and to investigate whether cumulative risk stemming from distinct ecological levels (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) differentially influences the manifestation of problem behaviours in middle childhood. In addition, ethnic differences between minority (i.e., Indian) and majority (i.e., English) families were examined.
Methods: The sample consisted of 125 children (59 English and 66 of Indian origin) between the ages of 7 and 9.6 (M = 8.51, SD = 0.62) and their parents. Both mothers and fathers completed questionnaires regarding the children's problem behaviour and provided reports of the children's characteristics and environment. Children were also assessed and provided reports about themselves and their relationships. Finally, parent-child mutuality and parenting behaviour were coded from a videotaped parent-child interaction task.
Results: Risk factors acted in a cumulative manner - the more risk children experienced, the more problem behaviour they exhibited. Total problem behaviour was predicted by all three levels: individual, microsystem and exosystem. However, externalising problems were mainly predicted by microsystem-level cumulative risk, whereas internalising problems were predicted by both individual-level cumulative risk and exosystem-level cumulative risk. These results were similar for both ethnic groups.
Conclusions: The support for the cumulative hypothesis highlights the importance of having a broad picture of children's characteristics and environmental components when analysing children's adjustment. The distinct influence of risk stemming from the different ecological levels suggests that the trajectories of internalising, externalising and total problem behaviour may be different.