Skip to main content

Objective: : Behavioral health problems are reported to affect as many as 24% of children younger than 4 years. Screening within primary care settings remains low. Brief, inexpensive methods to identify children are needed. The objective of this study was to determine the extent to which parent worry about their children’s behavior and development is associated with social-emotional problems.

Methods: : In this cross-sectional study, 378 Spanish and English speaking mothers of 12- to 48-month-old, underserved children were surveyed before a well-child visit with the Brief Infant-Toddler Social-Emotional Assessment. This is a parent-report measure that was scored to identify clinically significant (CS) social-emotional problems (≥85th percentile) and at-risk (AR) problems (75th-84th percentile). Parents rated their worry about their children’s behavior and social-emotional development on 3 questions.

Results: : A total of 42.1% of children had AR or CS problems or low social competence, with 19.8% of these children having CS problems. Overall, 30.4% of parents expressed worry about social-emotional/behavioral issues. A total of 19.9% of parents expressed worry despite having rated their child’s behavior in the normal range on the Brief Infant-Toddler Social-Emotional Assessment. Worry was significantly associated with having either AR or CS problems. However, worry significantly distinguished the CS group, but not the AR group, from the normal group. Parent worry regarding behavior and social-emotional development approached adequate sensitivity (66.7%) to identify children CS problems with specificity being 78.6%. Parent worry, however, was not adequately sensitive in detecting AR problems. Ethnic differences indicated that the sensitivity and specificity of worry to detect CS behavior and social-emotional problems were excellent in Hispanic families, but sensitivity was poor in African-American ones. Among parents with low educational attainment, sensitivity to detect CS behavior and social-emotional problems was excellent.

Conclusions: : Parent worry regarding social-emotional/behavioral issues may be a useful adjunct to developmental surveillance, as it identifies children with the most significant behavioral and social-emotional problems. However, as a screening method to identify all young children with social-emotional problems, parent worry does not currently achieve acceptable classification.