Housing wealth matters for children’s mental health

Children growing up in families with expensive homes have fewer emotional and behavioural problems, finds new research led by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) based at the UCL Social Research Institute.

The study, published today in Child Development, is one of the first to look at the links between family wealth and children’s development. The authors say that it is well established that children from higher income homes have, on average, fewer emotional and behavioural problems than children from families with lower incomes. But this new research shows that wealth - the assets a family owns - also plays a role in children’s mental health.

Comparing families with similar incomes, the researchers found that children from families with greater wealth, particularly related to home ownership, tend to have fewer emotional and behavioural problems than children from homes with less wealth.

The researchers analysed data from more than 8,500 children born in the UK at the turn of the century who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). They looked at information on parents’ wealth, including home ownership and value, and other financial assets such as savings, stocks and shares. The study’s authors took account outstanding mortgages and any other debts to accurately work out both housing wealth and financial wealth. They analysed data on parents’ current income, taken when children were age 11, as well as their average income, taken over the preceding 10-year period. The authors then analysed links between family wealth, income and children’s outcomes, using parents’ reports of children’s mental and physical health, and results from cognitive tests, all taken at age 11.

Among parents with similar current and average incomes, children whose parents had greater total wealth were reported to have fewer emotional problems - such as feelings of low mood and anxiety - and a smaller number of behavioural difficulties such as fighting and disobedience.

After analysing the influence of financial assets and housing wealth separately, the researchers found that it was, in fact, only housing wealth that was associated with children’s mental health. The study found that children from families with greater housing wealth had, on average, fewer difficulties getting on with their peers. This was true also when researchers examined house value only, without taking mortgages into account.   

Previous research has documented the advantages that children living in privately owned homes experience compared to their peers in social or private rented homes, related to their wellbeing, and later educational and employment outcomes. However, this study shows that there were some detectable differences in children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties even among homeowners, who accounted for approximately 60% of those who took part in the study. For example, children who grew up in homes worth £400,000 had an average behavioural and emotional difficulties score of 6.9 (where the maximum score for those with the highest levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties is 40), compared to 8.2 for children in homes worth £100,000 - a decreased score of around 16%.

Co-author Dr Ludovica Gambaro (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the German Institute for Economic Research) said: "Our finding that housing wealth and property value are likely to contribute to children’s emotional and behavioural problems is worrying. While a large majority of the children participating in this study experienced family home ownership and may have benefited from the rising house prices in the early 2000s, t he proportion of children growing up in homeowning families has fallen dramatically in the last decade. Meanwhile, the proportion growing up in rented homes has increased , creating a stark divide between children who benefit from the advantages of housing wealth and those who do not. As housing wealth inequalities increase, it is possible the divergence in children’s emotional and behavioural problems could be intensified."

The study did not find any significant associations between family wealth and children’s physical health and cognitive ability.

The researchers used very detailed data to account for a wide range of factors that may have influenced the link between wealth and mental health. These included family background and composition, parents’ education and occupation, UK region and ethnicity. However, as this is an observational study, it would be impossible to rule out that some unmeasured influences associated with both wealth and mental health are responsible for this association.

Co-author Dr Vanessa Moulton (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) said: "Housing is by far the most important asset in the wealth portfolio of families with children in the UK. This partly explains why housing wealth was more closely associated with children’s mental health than financial wealth. But the finding that peer relationships in particular are sensitive to housing wealth points to possible psychological benefits of living in more spacious homes, in areas with access to more resources and advantaged populations, that have been overlooked before.