The number of mixed ethnicity children born in the UK is growing. Research to date has shown that coming from a mixed ethnicity as opposed to a non mixed background has no impact on the likelihood of a child having behaviour problems. But a new report from a team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL and just published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, tells a different story, as its lead author Afshin Zilanawala explains.
It’s known that children from an ethnic minority background in the UK tend to have poorer health and to be disadvantaged in a range of other ways, but there has been hardly any research on children of mixed ethnicity, particularly when it comes to looking at their behaviour.
What little research has been done has been constrained by a lack of data and the need to look at broad or ‘catch-all’ ethnic groups in order to have sufficient numbers to examine.
Behaviour problems and poor outcomes
Given that children’s behaviour problems have been linked to poor academic achievement and lower levels of wellbeing in adult life, it’s important to try to get to grips with the sorts of things that might influence that early behaviour.
One study that looked at mixed ethnic differences in the behaviour problems of 3 year-olds found no link. A London study looking at mixed Black Caribbean/White 11-13 year-olds found no differences between them and their White peers.
Both studies looked at the children at a point in time, so there was no chance to look at any changes in behaviour over time. But our research shows something quite different.
Using the Millennium Cohort Study, we were able to look at a group of more than 16,000 children’s behaviour from when they were 3 through till when they had turned 11 years-old.
A range of questions about peer problems, challenging behaviour, hyperactivity and emotional problems were answered by the main respondent (usually the child’s mother) and from those responses, we were able to create an overall score (TDS) to represent the level of behavioural problems the child exhibited.
Mixed ethnicity and behaviour
Interestingly, at age 3, most mixed ethnicity children had fewer problem behaviours compared with their non mixed counterparts. White mixed, Indian mixed, Pakistani mixed and Bangladeshi mixed had fewer problems than their non mixed peers.
There was no difference, however, between mixed Black Caribbean children and their non mixed counterparts and the differences for Black African mixed and non mixed children were very small.
White mixed, Pakistani mixed, and Bangladeshi mixed children experienced increases in problem behaviours compared with their non-mixed counterparts, notably after age 7.
By age 11, White mixed, Indian mixed and Black African mixed children had fewer problems than non mixed, but Pakistani mixed, Bangladeshi mixed and Black Caribbean mixed children have more problems than children from a non mixed background.
Identity crisis as children get older?
What do we make of all this? As our mixed ethnicity children get older, is there some sort of identity crisis, both social and personal that is triggering a change in behavior? The behavior problems of the mixed 11 year-old children in our study could reflect children’s struggle to reconcile their families’ heritage and culture and their personal identity formation.
As children spend more time in school, they are less influenced by their home environments and have more interactions with peers and friends, all of which could be playing a role in the behavioral difficulties some mixed ethnicity children are experiencing.
The fact that mixed relationships are more common among Black Caribbeans compared with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis could explain why there are no behaviour differences between Black Caribbean mixed and non mixed children, whilst differences do exist between the mixed and non mixed South Asian groups.
In other words, it could be that there is less strain and anxiety in mixed partnerships when those types of interethnic relationships are more common.
It would be interesting to dig further into all of this by taking into consideration school, psychosocial and socio-demographic factors, all of which could be at play here.
Mixed ethnicity and behavioural problems in the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly. It is published in Archives of Childhood Disease.