Background: Family risk factors are important in multiple aspects of children’s development. Previous research in the field has mostly focused on populations with generally high levels of risk. Little is known about the occurrence and operation of family risk factors in low-risk populations, nor whether family risk factors are associated with developmental outcomes in similar ways in low- and high-risk populations. Finally, varying approaches to the measure of family risk are in use, and little is known about their implications.
Method: The current study used data collected in the Matter of the First Friendship (MOFF) study. Parental report was used to identify risk factors, and child interviews were used for outcomes. Measure of risk preceded measure of outcomes by one year. Data from 579 parental questionnaires and 487 child interviews were included. In a cross-sectional design, associations between family risk and four outcomes were investigated. Two approaches to family risk factors were selected, cumulative and individual factor approaches. The social and cognitive outcomes included children’s Theory of Mind, digit span performance, whether they had a best friend, and social expectations in an ambiguous situation.
Results: Family risk factors were associated with developmental outcomes in both cumulative and specific ways. Theory of mind was associated with cumulative risk only. Digit span was associated with both cumulative risk and some individual risk factors. Whether the children reported having a best friend, and their social expectations, were not associated with cumulative risk, only with individual factors.
Conclusion: Both cumulative and individual factor approaches are necessary in research on family risk. Findings concerning the relative importance of these approaches are likely to depend on the level of aggregation of the outcome measures employed.