Lasting Legacy of Recessions: Behavior Problems Among Teens

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Fiscal cliff negotiations tested everyone’s patience, but even young children who don’t understand national budgets may show signs of strain during such economic insecurity.

The latest research shows that financial crises such as recessions can adversely affect infants and young children who grow up in an environment of economic instability.

Unemployment and reduced household income levels can cause emotional distress among adults and that anxiety can in turn affect how well parents provide for their children — especially if families have fewer resources to provide for their children’s education as well as attend to their social and physical well-being.

(MORE: Unemployment is Hard on the Health, and The Harm May Add Up)

A study published this week in the online edition of JAMA Psychiatry finds that infants born during and after the 1980 and 1981-1982 recessions were more likely to develop behavioral problems in adolescence, such as substance abuse and delinquency, than infants born during periods of low unemployment.

The data on adolescents was gathered from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, backed in part by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and considered to be a representative sample of U.S. adolescents in that year. Led by Dr. Seethalakshmi Ramanathan of the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University, researchers collected information from about 8,984 youth born between January 1, 1980, and December 31, 1984, including data on their family, community, criminal and delinquent backgrounds. Two recessions occurred during this time, pushing national unemployment rates from 6.6% to 11.4%.

The adolescents, aged 12-16 years, answered questions about a range of behaviors, including past marijuana abuse, smoking, alcohol consumption, illegal drug use, arrests, handgun use, gang affiliation, property destruction, assault-related behavior, and both major and petty theft. Even after the researchers accounted for factors that could influence behavior problems, such as the participants’ sex, ethnicity, mother’s age at birth, parenting environment, experience with foster care, and siblings who are gang members, the connection between being born during the recession and later behavioral problems remained.

Adolescents who were exposed to even a 1% increase in the unemployment rate in their region at age one, for example, were more likely to engage in problem behavior as adolescents. High unemployment rates during infancy were most associated with future marijuana use (9%). As Reuters Health reported:

This means that instead of 20 out of every 1,000 kids smoking pot, the increased risk in higher unemployment regions would result in 23 pot smokers out of every 1,000 teens. Such an increase nationwide would result in 115,000 additional pot smokers.

(MORE: Why The Recession May Trigger Higher Depression Levels Among Men)

The same rise in unemployment contributed to an increased risk of tobacco use of 7%, and a 6% boost in average alcohol consumption. And in terms of delinquent behavior, youngsters raised during recessions were also 17% more likely to get arrested, 9% more likely to be a part of a gang, 6% more likely to engage in petty theft and 11% more likely to engage in major theft than those born in stabler economic times. The relationship between the unemployment rate and adolescent behavior problems held at all economic levels, which contradicts past research that linked poverty to poor cognitive development.

This study’s focus on the long-term effects of jobless rates on infancy and adolescence builds on previous research that has focused primarily on adults and unemployment’s short-term effects. Those investigations showed that unemployment can contribute to heart disease, and even an increased incidence of child abuse. Joblessness can trigger mental health issues as well, as a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that unemployed men are at higher risk of a developing depression. As fewer men assume the role of family breadwinner and are forced to take on more child-rearing roles, they can experience lower self-esteem, a key factor in depression risk. And unemployed men may be more likely to go through a divorce, according to a July 2011 study published in the American Journal of Sociology.

The results do not imply that all children born during hard times are destined to act out and experience behavior problems. The authors say that while they considered some of the factors that may influence such disorders, they could not account for other contributors such as specific hardships families endure and the parents’ history of substance abuse or behavioral problems. The scientists also acknowledge that they did not separate the effects that under-employment could play in increasing family tensions; unsatisfying jobs can also lead to low self-esteem and smaller incomes and impact the way moms and dads parent their children in a negative way.

The results do, however, suggest that mental health professionals should look beyond individual family dynamics as they counsel younger clients, and consider the national economic conditions during these patients’ infancy as part of the social and psychological recipe that contributes to their current mental state.

MORE: Unemployed Men Are More Likely to Divorce