Disorders affect 1 in 5 U.S. children problem linked to breakdown of family unit

December 09, 1990|By Chicago Tribune

An in-depth survey of America's troubled youth reveals that 1 in 5 children under age 18 has a learning, emotional, behavior or developmental problem that researchers say can be traced to the continuing dissolution of the two-parent family.

The federally sponsored survey of more than 17,000 children nationwide showed that by the time youngsters enter their teen-age years, 1 in 4 suffer from one or more of these problems, and for male teen-agers it is nearly 1 in 3.

"The alarmingly high prevalence of emotional and behavioral problems among today's children, and the observed relationship between family disruption and youthful problem behavior, reinforce public concerns about the increasing number of U.S. children who are being raised in something other than harmonious two-parent families," said Nicholas Zill, a psychologist and executive director of Child Trends Inc., a Washington-based organization.

Mr. Zill said emotional and behavioral problems affect 10 million children and are more prevalent than asthma, dermatitis, heart murmurs, bronchitis, bone disorders and other chronic childhood maladies.

Two factors are contributing to the increase in childhood psychological disorders, which are profoundly affecting family functioning and children's chances in life, he said.

* The most important involves family dynamics: the increasing number of children who experience their parents' divorce, are born outside marriage, or are raised in conflict-filled families or low-income, low-education, single-parent households, Mr. Zill said.

Emotional and behavioral problems were two to three times higher among children in single-parent homes or in families with one stepparent. Learning difficulties were nearly

twice as high among children whose mothers had not completed high school compared to those whose mothers had more than 12 years of education.

* A second factor is the mental damage children suffer at birth or later, Mr. Zill said.

Though survival of extremely low-birth-weight babies is becoming more routine, they have a higher risk of brain damage during their first weeks. Children also are affected by environmental pollutants, and more babies are being born to mothers addicted to drugs, especially crack cocaine, he said.

Despite the large number of youngsters with psychological problems, many are not diagnosed and those who are do not receive adequate help, he said.

The survey found that only one-quarter of the children with emotional or behavioral problems received special help in schools.

"At least 1 out of 4 of these problems could be avoided if we had more kids growing up in harmonious families or receiving some kind of treatment," he said.

Overall, white children had a higher rate of problems than either black or Hispanic children, but the lower rate in these two groups is probably due to underreporting, Mr. Zill said. Blacks and Hispanics made up about 20 percent of children in the survey.

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