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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2017

Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties

Positive emotional and behavioral health is an integral part of healthy development and enhances a child's sense of well-being, supports rewarding social relationships with family and peers, and facilitates achievement of full academic potential.132 Children with emotional or behavioral difficulties may experience problems managing their emotions, focusing on tasks, interacting with family and peers, and/or controlling their behavior. These difficulties, which may persist throughout a child's development, can lead to lifelong problems.133 Parents play a crucial role in informing health professionals about a child's emotional and behavioral difficulties and obtaining mental health services.134

Indicator HEALTH3: Percentage of children ages 4–17 reported by a parent to have serious emotional or behavioral difficulties by age and gender, 2005–2015
Indicator HEALTH3: Percentage of children ages 4–17 reported by a parent to have serious emotional or behavioral difficulties by age and gender, 2005–2015

NOTE: Emotional or behavioral difficulties of children were based on parental responses to the following question on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire:135 "Overall, do you think that (child) has difficulties in any of the following areas: emotions, concentration, behavior, or being able to get along with other people?" Response choices were (1) no; (2) yes, minor difficulties; (3) yes, definite difficulties; (4) yes, severe difficulties. Children with serious emotional or behavioral difficulties are defined as those whose parent responded "yes, definite" or "yes, severe." These difficulties may be similar to but do not equate with the Federal definition of serious emotional disturbance, used by the Federal government for planning purposes.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health Interview Survey.

  • In 2015, 6 percent of parents reported that their child ages 4–17 displayed serious difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior, or getting along with other people. This percentage has been stable at 5 to 6 percent since 2001.
  • The percentage of children with serious emotional or behavioral difficulties in 2015 was lowest among children ages 4–7 (4 percent), compared with children ages 8–10 (6 percent), children ages 11–14 (8 percent), and adolescents ages 15–17 (6 percent).
  • Over the past decade, the percentage of children with serious emotional or behavioral difficulties differed by gender. From 2005 to 2015, more males (5 to 7 percent) than females (3 to 5 percent) ages 4–17 displayed these difficulties.
  • Parents reported a higher percentage of serious emotional or behavioral difficulties among males ages 11–14 in 2015 (9 percent) than among males ages 4–7 (5 percent) and ages 15–17 (6 percent).
  • Among females in 2015, the percentage ages 4–7 with reported serious emotional or behavioral difficulties in 2015 was lower (2 percent) than for any other age group.
  • In 2015, the percentage of children ages 4–17 who were reported to have serious emotional or behavioral difficulties was similar across race and ethnic groups at 6 percent for White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; and Hispanic families.

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132 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth/home.html

133 New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. (2003). Achieving the promise: Transforming mental health care in America. Final Report (DHHS Pub. No. SMA-03-3832). Rockville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services.

134 Sayal, K. (2006). Annotation: Pathways to care for children with mental health problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 649–659.

135 Goodman, R. (1999). The extended version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire as a guide to child psychiatric caseness and consequent burden. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 791–799.