Technical report

Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in New Zealand children: technical report

Children Well-being Social inclusion Government services Early childhood development early childhood services New Zealand

This report presents a picture of social, emotional and behavioural functioning of New Zealand children and youth aged 3–14 years. Data were collected from parents using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), as part of the New Zealand Health Survey (the Health Survey) in 2012/13, 2014/15 and 2015/16.

The SDQ assesses children on a range of positive and negative behaviours that are related to emotions, peer interactions, hyperactivity and conduct. Children with healthy development display the majority of the positive behaviours and few of the negative behaviours assessed. These children are better equipped to meet life’s challenges. They also learn better, get along better with others, have positive relationships with their families, friends and others (eg, teachers) and contribute to their community in ways that are appropriate for their age. Healthy development provides a foundation for positive mental health and wellbeing, now and into the future.

Parent responses to the SDQ in the Health Survey indicated that the majority of children aged 3–14 years were developing well, without any substantial social, emotional or behavioural problems. However, approximately 8% of children in this age range displayed significant levels of difficulty according to their parents’ report on the SDQ. The proportion of children experiencing difficulties and the nature of their difficulties differed by age group, sex, ethnicity, and neighbourhood deprivation. These group differences are summarised in Figure 1.

The prevalence of difficulties based on the overall SDQ (emotional, peer, hyperactivity and conduct combined) differed across subgroups. Difficulties were:

  • more likely for boys compared with girls
  • more likely for older compared with younger primary school children
  • more likely for Māori compared with non-Māori children
  • more likely for children living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas compared with the least
  • comparable in prevalence for Pacific and non-Pacific children
  • less likely for Asian compared with non-Asian children.

The particular areas in which children were likely to experience difficulties differed by subgroup. Girls were more likely than boys to experience difficulties that are emotional in nature. Boys on the other hand were more likely than girls to have peer, hyperactivity and conduct problems. Children aged 10–14 had higher rates of emotional symptoms than those aged 5–9 years.

Parents of Māori and non-Māori children reported comparable rates of emotional symptoms. For the other areas, Māori children typically had higher rates of difficulties compared with non-Māori children. Pacific children typically had lower rates of hyperactivity compared with non-Pacific children, and higher rates of difficulties related to emotions, peer interactions and conduct. The rate of peer problems was comparable for Asian and non-Asian children, while Asian children typically had lower rates for the other areas assessed by the SDQ compared with non-Asian children.

Children from families living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas had higher rates of difficulties than those living in least deprived areas for all aspects of development assessed by the SDQ. Hyperactivity was an exception, with comparable rates reported for children living in the most and the least deprived areas.

The findings presented in this report have a number of policy implications. While for all groups the majority of children were developing well, certain groups of children experienced a higher rate of emotional or behavioural difficulties. Also, the nature of these difficulties was somewhat different across groups. Higher rates of difficulties were reported by parents of older children, which may be preventable through early identification and intervention. Child-focused initiatives that develop children’s skills in building relationships, regulating their emotions and coping with stress may help to improve children’s outcomes across a range of areas, including mental health and education. Findings provide an indication of the proportion of New Zealand children experiencing difficulties, which could inform service planning.

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