Emotional and behavioural difficulties among looked after children

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Previous research studies on the mental health of looked after children have consistently found higher rates of emotional and behavioural difficulties among children who have been looked after, relative to children in the general population. However, such studies have been unable to disentangle the effects of being in care from the impact of the adverse experiences, in most cases abuse or neglect, that have led to children being admitted to care.
This study aimed to compare the mental health of children looked after due to abuse or neglect, with children who have not been looked after but have experienced similar adversities that have led to them becoming the subject of a child protection plan. This study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and was conducted by researchers at the University of York.
Interviews were conducted with the parents or foster carers of 387 children aged 2 to 9 years, including 213 children who had been looked after and 174 children who had not been looked after. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was administered with parents and foster carers, together with measures of socio-demographic factors, child rearing practices and caregiver mental health. Data from interviews were linked to administrative data and information provided by social workers on children’s histories of involvement with social care services and the nature and severity of the abuse or neglect they were thought to have experienced.
More than a third (34%) of the children who had been looked after were found to have ‘High’ or ‘Very high’ SDQ total difficulties scores, indicating emotional and behavioural difficulties in these cases, compared to around a quarter (26%) of the children who had not been in care but had been the subject of a child protection plan. These prevalence rates compare to under 10% of children in the general UK population. Several factors were found to be associated with poorer mental health among the children in this study, including them having experienced more types of abuse or neglect, having a current caregiver who is less ‘warm’ and/or having a current caregiver who has a mental health problem.
The findings from this study illustrate the multi-factorial nature of outcomes for children in care and suggest that poor mental health among looked after children is not solely a result of the time they spend in care. The development of mental health issues among these children appears to be partly due to the adversities they experience prior to entering care and also relates to the nature of their relationships with current caregivers.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 3 Jul 2017
EventCORAMBAAF Health Group Conference: Adverse childhood experiences and outcomes - considering the neuroscience relevant to looked after and adopted children - Birmingham
Duration: 3 Jul 20173 Jul 2017


ConferenceCORAMBAAF Health Group Conference


  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • looked after children

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