Examining the mediating role of family processes in the relationship between family income and mental health outcomes among young children involved in the child welfare system
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The negative relationship between economic hardship, child maltreatment, and child development in young children is well-documented. However, few studies have examined the mechanisms underlying the link between family economic hardship and child mental health outcomes in the context of child maltreatment. In this study, the family stress model is used to understand how family economic hardship affects child mental health. In this model, the effects of economic hardship on child mental health are indirect through their influence on family processes. Family processes are aspects of family life and are characterized by parental psychological functioning and parenting behavior. Because unhealthy family processes, which often lead to maltreatment, are associated with poor outcomes in the development of children, this framework can link developmental research and theory to an analysis of child maltreatment. The current study analyzes data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being-II, a survey of families in the child welfare system. The sample included children ages 18 months to 11 years and their parent (or caregivers). The results indicated that family income, a measure of economic hardship, was significantly associated with mental health problems in children involved in the child welfare system, but not in the way it was expected. Structural equation modeling analysis revealed no significant direct or indirect paths from family income to child mental health, but showed that family income affected other mechanisms contributing to poor child mental health. Lower family income was associated with greater parental depressive symptoms, alcohol use, drug use, and physical abuse. In line with the family stress model, the relationship between parental depression and child mental health was partially mediated through physical abuse. Similarly, physical abuse fully mediated the relationship between parental alcohol use and child mental health. However, neglect did not mediate the relationship between family processes and child mental health. Contrary to the study hypothesis, family processes did not mediate the relationship between family income and child mental health. Rather, family processes predicted poor child mental health. In particular, physical abuse was an important vehicle through which parental functioning translated to poor mental health outcomes in children.