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Less Than Half Of American Kids Are 'Flourishing,' Says Alarming New Study

For a country that touts its status as the “leader of the free world,” the United States is surprisingly behind in many aspects. One of them, a recent study confirms, is the well-being of the nation’s children. A new study shows that less than half of American children are flourishing and that those most likely to flourish come from households with specific qualities.

As the study published in Health Affairs this month revealed, only about 40.3 percent of U.S. kids are flourishing on a national level. Levels of “flourishing” in the study were determined by three indicators: children’s interest and curiosity in learning new things; persistence in task completion; and capacity to regulate emotions. The findings, which were based on children ages 6 through 17, found specific household qualities led to flourishing in children regardless and across levels of adversity faced by the child, household income, and special health care needs.

The data suggests that children who come from families with higher levels of resilience and connection are more likely to meet the flourishing criteria. “Family resilience and connection were important for flourishing in all children, regardless of their level of adversity,” lead researcher in the study and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Christina D. Bethell said in a press release. “Parent-child connection had a particularly strong association with child flourishing.”

Family resilience and connection is characterized in the study by how well families respond when facing problems, how well parents and children share ideas or communicate about things that matter, and how well parents cope with the daily demands of raising children.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, determined that children from families reporting the highest levels of resilience and connection had over three times greater odds of flourishing when compared to the children form families that reported the lowest levels of these household qualities. The same association was found between resilience, connection, and flourishing across all groups of children, regardless of the level of adversity they faced, their exposure to poverty, and/or presence of a chronic condition or special health care need.

The researchers say that promoting qualities of flourishing could have many benefits for children. Higher levels of flourishing could increase the level of meaning and engagement that children have in school, in their relationships, and in their daily activities.

The study, which drew its findings from a sample of over 51,000 school-aged children between 2016 and 2017, also shows that qualities of flourishing in childhood could translate into a sense of meaning and engagement in life and positive relationships as adults.

Researchers involved in the study say that such a low percentage of flourishing among U.S. children warrants attention. “With only four in ten U.S. school-age children flourishing, we need population-wide approaches to promoting child flourishing,” Bethell said. “Especially critical are efforts to foster safe, stable and nurturing family relationships by encouraging parents to communicate with their children about things that really matter to the child and family.”

Evidence-based programs and policies that increase family resilience and connection, the researchers say, could be key to increase levels of flourishing in U.S. children. However, the success of any program or policy efforts would depend on the partnership between families and their children.

Increases in levels of flourishing could also lend themselves to long-term improvements in other areas of concern in the U.S., including the nation’s children healthcare practitioners and social and educational services.

With these findings, it is important for parents and families to focus on creating environments that facilitate open communication and foster resilience in the face of challenges. And that's something every parent can do.