Comparing Korean immigrant mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions of their child’s behavioral strengths and difficulties


Boram Lee


Woosong University, Department of Early Childhood Education, Deajeon, South Korea.




Background: Parents’ ratings of their children’s emotional and sociobehavioral problems are usually assessed through the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), an international standardized measure of child behavior that is widely used in practice and research. This study aimed to explore differences and agreements between parents on SDQ domains of child behavioral strengths and difficulties.


Methods: The sample consisted of 136 Korean immigrant parents in New Zealand, whose children were 6 to 10 years old. The parents completed the Korean version of the SDQ. The resulting data were subjected to a one-way, between-groups multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), Spearman’s correlation analyses, and a series of paired samples t-tests.


Results: Although mothers and fathers did not significantly differ in their ratings of internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems in their children, mothers reported comparatively higher scores than fathers for prosocial behaviors in their children. The level of agreement between mothers’ and fathers’ reports was low to moderate for the SDQ.

Conclusions: The findings suggest that when the SDQ is used to evaluate the emotional and behavioral function and adjustment of a school-aged child in research, information obtained from both mothers and fathers are unlikely to vary, and the self-reported data will have at least a moderate concurrence.


Keywords: Child behavior, Korean immigrant parents, parent report, parental perceptions, Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ)





Ethnic Asians make up 12 % of the total New Zealand population and are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in New Zealand [1]. Korean immigrants, who are the focus of this paper, comprise about 32,000 people, and are the fourth largest Asian ethnic population in New Zealand. The rapid increase in immigration has resulted in immigrant children representing the fastest-growing segments of the child population in New Zealand [2]. Compared to non-immigrant children, these children are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems due to stress associated with immigration [3-5]. Although immigrant children experience many of the same stressors as non-immigrants do, they may experience additional stressors due to their minority position in the mainstream society [6]. The stress resulting from immigration experience, thus, can have a profound impact on the emotional and behavioral development of children. In fact, a number of studies state that immigrant children are at increased risk of emotional and behavioral problems. For example, a review of emotional and behavioral problems in immigrant children has reported that Asian migrant children had a higher risk of developing internalized problems compared to native children [6]. However, a few studies suggest that immigrant children are actually at a lowered risk of developing problem behaviors [7, 8]. For example, Stevens and Vollebergh [8] identified a link between socioeconomic status and problem behaviors and found that, in some countries, immigrants have a higher SES than the host population. In such situations (e.g., Australia), immigrant children exhibit fewer problems according to their parents [9].


Although, child emotional and behavioral problems are frequently assessed by obtaining data from different informants including parent, teachers, peers and children, it has been established that informant ratings are influenced by context, with parents being a reliable source of information about their child’s behavior at home [10, 11]. As a result, parent ratings are a frequently utilized method of obtaining firsthand information regarding the child’s behavior and symptoms [11]. When identifying emotional and behavioral difficulties in their children, parents frequently use the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) [12]. The SDQ is a screening tool for identifying emotional and behavioral problems in children and adolescents aged 3–16 years. Studies examining interparental agreement through the SDQ have systematically evaluated correlations and differences in scores of mothers and fathers. When examining interparental agreement of a specific behavior or item level using Pearson or Spearman’s correlation coefficients, moderate to large positive correlations between mothers’ and fathers’ SDQ scores were found, with larger positive correlations typically observed for externalizing problems [11, 13-16]. For example, in a study conducted by Mellor et al. [11], while using a population sample of parents of school-aged children in China, findings showed moderate positive correlations between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of their children’s behavioral problems, with stronger correlations found in reports of externalizing problems than in emotional problems, regardless of the child’s gender. A study in Korea that used the SDQ also found higher positive correlations between parents’ ratings for externalizing problems than for internalizing problems [16].


When examining the interparental discrepancies in SDQ ratings of internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems, conflicting patterns of results have been found. Davé et al. [13] and D’Souza et al. [14] found that mothers tended to report fewer behavioral problems in their children than fathers did. Mellor et al. and Griffith et al. [15], however, found no significant differences in the scores of mothers and fathers, though mothers did report higher levels of prosocial behavior in their children than fathers did. These mixed findings could be due to the differences in age of the children participating in the studies. The age range of participants in Griffiths et al.’s study [15] was broad (4–17 years old) with a mean age of 10.51 years while Mellor et al.’s [11] sample included older primary school children with a mean age of 8.7 years. It is possible that, compared to fathers, mothers of younger children (aged 2–6 years), such as those who participated in the studies by Davé et al. [13] and D’Souza et al. [14], perceive their child as having fewer behavioral difficulties. Mothers often spend more time with their children than fathers do in the early years and, as a result, may be more used to difficult behaviors in their children [17]. The second possible explanation for the discrepancy is that children may exhibit different behaviors when interacting with their mothers and with their fathers [11].  


A study by Duhig, Renk, Epstein, and Phares [18] has also found an interrelation between the gender of the parent and the gender of the child such that mothers report more problems in sons than fathers do, and fathers report more problems in daughters than mothers do. Mellor et al. [11] and Davé et al. [13] also reported a gender of parent by gender of child interaction for some of the subscales on the SDQ. Based on a sample of 380 girls and 320 boys, Mellor et al. [11] found that mothers tended to report higher levels of prosocial behaviors in their sons than fathers did, with no significant differences between mothers’ and fathers’ reports of their sons’ and daughters’ behaviors on any other scales. In contrast, Davé et al. [13] found that, compared to mothers, fathers were more likely to report more conduct problems and overall difficulties in their daughters. However, other research has found no gender of parent by gender of child interrelations in SDQ ratings of behavioral problems [19, 20].


While research on the correspondence between inter-parental reports of children’s behavior problems has proliferated over the past decade, there appears to be little research examining similarities and differences between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of children’s strengths and behavioral difficulties in Korean immigrant samples. The purpose of this study was to extend the findings of mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions of their child’s behavioral strengths and difficulties, from research with other Asian and Westerns samples to Korean immigrant parents, [11, 13, 14, 16], using the SDQ. Based on previous research, it was hypothesized that (a) both mothers and fathers will rate their boys higher on externalizing (conduct problems, hyperactivity) problems than their girls, whereas girls will receive higher maternal and paternal ratings on prosocial behavior than boys. There will be no child gender differences for mother-and father-reported internalizing (emotional and peer problems) problems; (b) it was hypothesized that for mother and father reports on the same child, mothers will report higher levels of prosocial behavior for their boys than will fathers, and (c) it was hypothesized that the agreement between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of their children’s behavior will be higher for externalizing problems than for internalizing problems.





The sample consisted of 136 Korean immigrant families residing in New Zealand with a child aged between six and ten. At the time of the survey, the mean age was 33.8 years for mothers (SD = 12.0) and 37.0 years for fathers (SD = 6.74). On average, parents had been in New Zealand for 7.4 years (SD = 5.2). Most parents were highly educated, with 10% of mothers 2% of fathers having secondary school education and 90% of mothers and 98% of fathers with a university degree or higher. The parents had an annual household income falling between $NZ 60,000 and $NZ 80,000. If there was more than one child in the specified age range (ages 6-10) in the family, parents were asked to select the oldest child. The target children were 76 girls and 60 boys with an average age of 7.7 years (SD = 1.7).




The study’s procedures were approved by the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee (UAHPEC) in New Zealand. This study used non-random, purposive sampling; thus, participants were recruited from Korean immigrant parents whose children, aged between six and ten, attended primary schools in Auckland, New Zealand. Since the elements of the population are selected arbitrarily and according to certain characteristics, non-random sampling does not allow the estimation of sampling errors; there is no statistical way to assess the validity of results of non-random samples [22]. After receiving ethics approval from the UAHPEC, participants were primarily recruited with the cooperation of the Korean religious organizations and Korean language schools. In accordance with HPEC requirements, the researcher did not directly approach potential participants. Hence, questionnaires, with a cover letter describing the study, consent forms, and self-addressed stamped envelopes, were distributed by Korean community leaders to eligible parents via post.


Parents who met the following inclusion criteria were invited to participate. Inclusion criteria required Korean immigrant parents to: (a) be born in the Republic of Korea, (b) currently live in New Zealand, (c) have a child aged 6-10 who was currently enrolled in a New Zealand primary school, and (d) be willing to participate. Families where one parent was not Korean and married parents who live abroad were excluded. Thus, this study focuses solely on Korean immigrant parents from the Republic of Korea. There were no restrictions for the length of time spent in New Zealand.


Completed questionnaire was mailed to the researcher within a month. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.



Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ [12] is a brief 25-item questionnaire that consists of four difficulties subscales and one strength subscale of five items each: Emotional symptoms (e.g., often complains of headaches, stomach-aches or sickness); Conduct problems (e.g., often fights with other children or bullies them); Hyperactivity (e.g., restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long); Peer problems (e.g., picked on or bullied by other children); and Prosocial behavior (e.g., considerate of other people’s feelings). Each of the 25 items is rated on a three-point scale (0=Not true, 1=Somewhat true, 2=Certainly true). Five items are positively worded and the scores are reversed. The score for each five subscale is generated by summing the scores for the five items that make up the scale, thereby yielding scores between 0 and 10. A total difficulties score is ranging from 0 to 40, by summing the scores from the emotional symptoms, peer problems, conduct problems, and hyperactivity. Additionally, Goodman, Lamping, and Ploubidis [21] provided theoretical and empirical support for combining the SDQ’s emotional and peer problems subscales into an internalizing problems subscale and the conduct and hyperactivity subscales into an externalizing problems subscale for lower risk children. Both internalizing and externalizing problems subscales scores range from 0 to 20.


Statistical analyses

The statistical analyses in this study were performed with IBM SPSS (IBM SPSS Statistics V.23 for Windows; IBM, New York, USA), using a one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), the paired samples t-test, and the Spearman’s correlation analyses. Because Cronbach’s alpha as estimate of internal consistency reliability produces the lowest possible value [22], the greatest lower bound (glb) for each scale was calculated using TiaPlus [23].

In order to determine the requisite sample size of the study and how much statistical power was provided by the available sample size to support the study’s statistical analyses, an a priori power analysis was conducted using G*Power software (Version [23]. As noted earlier, it is not appropriate to calculate margins of error for this sample, due to the non-representative and non-random processes used to assemble it. The sample of 68 matched mothers and fathers (136 parents) provided a power of .95 to detect effect sizes of d=.30 using t-tests of means.


Prior to conducting the MANOVA, certain assumptions were tested to ensure that the data were suitable for this statistical tool. First, the variables were checked for normality, linearity, homoscedasticity, and homogeneity of error variance in line with the procedures suggested by Hair, Black, Babin, and Anderson [24]. The normality of the distribution and homogeneity of variance assumptions was assessed by conducting univariate analyses (skewness and kurtosis). Skewness and kurtosis values for all of the study variables were found to be well within acceptable ranges (i.e., +/-3.00). To test for multivariate outliers, the Mahalanobis distance measure was used and no multivariate outliers were detected. Next, Levene‘s tests for homogeneity of variances were non-significant for each analysis, indicating that this assumption was met. Residual and scatter plots revealed no significant violation of the assumptions of linearity and homoscedasticity. Bivariate correlations were run between all the dependent variables. In this study, no dependent variables were highly correlated and multicollinearity analysis revealed no significant violation of the assumption, suggesting the appropriateness of MANOVA. In addition, the Box’s M value of 89.35 was associated with a p value of .372. Hence, for the purposes of MANOVA, the covariance matrices between the groups were assumed to be equal.


The MANOVA was used to examine differences between the reports of mothers of girls and mothers of boys, and reports of fathers of girls and fathers of boys. Specifically, a MANOVA was conducted using gender of the child as a between-subject independent variable, gender of the parent as a within-subject independent variable, and the scores on each subscale as multiple dependent variables.


A series of paired samples t-tests were then used to compare mother and father reports on the same child. Effect sizes for differences in means were reported using Cohen‘s d. Confidence intervals (95%) were calculated for each effect size, which were significant if their 95% confidence intervals did not cross zero. Finally, Spearman’s correlation analyses were conducted to test relationships between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of their child’s behavioral strengths and difficulties.





Descriptive information


Table 1 shows reliability coefficients measuring the greatest lower bound (glb) for girls and boys as well as the overall reports by both parents for each SDQ subscale and the total difficulties scale. As can be seen in Table 1, the reliability values were inadequate, particularly for the internalized problem subscales. Only the three subscales (total difficulties, externalizing problems, and prosocial behavior) had α>.70, however, the mean-item correlations were in the optimal range of .20 and .40 for most the scales in this study [24].




Comparisons of maternal and paternal ratings of child behavior by child gender

A one-way MANOVA was conducted to examine differences between the reports of mothers of girls and mothers of boys, and reports of fathers of girls and fathers of boys (Table 1).


There was a multivariate effect for the girls and boys on the combined mother-rated subscales

of the SDQ (F(4,131) = 4.26, p = .00, Wilk’s λ = .89, ηp2 = .12). Specifically, significant differences were found on the externalizing problems (F(1,134) = 3.80, = .001, ηp2= .03) and prosocial behaviors (F(1,134) = 9.89, p = .001, ηp2 = .07). An inspection of the mean scores indicated that mothers of boys reported higher levels of externalizing problem compared to mothers of girls. In regards to prosocial behaviors, mothers of girls reported higher levels in their girls compared to mothers of boys. No statistically significant difference was found between girls and boys for mother-reported internalizing problems.


There was also a multivariate effect for child gender on the combined father-rated subscales of the SDQ (F(4,131) = 3.63, p = .01, Wilk’s λ = .92, ηp2 = .08). Specifically, significant differences were also found on the externalizing problems (F(1,134) = 3.49, p = .001, ηp2 = .03) and prosocial behaviors (F(1,134) = 6.03, = .002, ηp2 = .04). Father-reported externalizing problems were found to differ between girls and boys. Fathers of boys, reported higher levels of externalizing problems for their boys than did girls. Fathers’ perceived higher levels of prosocial behavior in their girls than did fathers of boys. Father’s ratings of boys’ and girls’ internalizing problems did not differ significantly.



Comparisons of maternal and paternal behavior reports on the same child

A series of paired sample t tests were performed to compare mother and father reports on the same child (Table 2). Maternal and paternal reports of their boys’ and girl’s internalizing and externalizing problems were not significantly different. However, for both boys and girls, maternal and paternal reports significantly differed for prosocial behaviors and the effect sizes were small (t = 1.08, p < .05, d = .30 for girls; t = 1.27, p < .05, d = .24 for boys; t = 2.18, p < .05, d = .26 for all). Mothers reported significantly higher levels of prosocial behaviors than fathers regardless of child gender.


Extent of agreement between maternal and paternal ratings of child behavior

As shown in Table 23, there was moderate agreement between mothers and fathers in their total score ratings of child behavior difficulties. and subscale ratings of externalizing problems. Agreement was moderately low for internalizing behavior and prosocial behavior.

Interparent agreement was higher for externalizing problems than internalizing problems regardless of the gender of the child. When correlations were compared in internalizing and externalizing behaviors separately for girls and boys, the strongest correlations were found for externalizing problems in girls (r=.47, p < .01), and the weakest correlations were found for internalizing problems in boys (r=.30, p < .01).






The current study compared mothers’ and fathers’ reports of their child’s behavioral strengths and difficulties as assessed by the SDQ in a sample of Korean immigrant parents. The overall finding, that mothers and fathers did not differ significantly in their ratings of their children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, contradicts those of other studies, which suggest that compared with mothers, fathers tended to report significantly more problems in their children than mothers [13, 14]. The study’s discrepancy with Dav֜e et al. [13] and D’Souza et al. [14] may be due to the characteristics of the current sample: parents who volunteered to participate in the study and reported low levels of problem behaviors in their children and were perhaps more likely to have similar perceptions of their child’s behavior compared to the samples of other studies, that is, parents recruited from clinical samples or large population samples.


The first hypothesis, that both mothers and fathers would rate their boys higher on externalizing problems than their girls, was supported, and the hypothesis that both parents would rate their girls higher on prosocial behavior than their boys was also supported. Consistent with previous studies [11, 13], both mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of children’s externalizing problems were significantly higher for boys than girls. Meanwhile, both parents reported higher rates of externalizing problems for their boys than their girls, and fathers’ ratings of externalizing problems in both their girls and boys were higher than those of mothers. However, these differences were notably small in magnitude and may therefore not be of any meaningful significance. Nevertheless, this pattern of fathers’ ratings of externalizing problems (i.e., hyperactivity and conduct problems) has also been demonstrated by Dav֜e et al. [13] in a UK sample of children aged four to six. One possible reason for fathers’ higher reported rates of externalizing problems is that they may be particularly sensitive to their children’s behavior problems and may be less forgiving with regard to such issues than mothers [13, 25]. Another possibility is that they over-reported in these behavior domains [13].


With regard to prosocial behavior, girls received higher maternal and paternal ratings than boys. Perhaps socialization differences and child gender role expectations may account for why parents may have rated their girls’ prosocial behavior higher than that of their boys [26] These results corroborate those of Park and Cheah [27], who found that Korean mothers, especially, consider social skills as more important for girls than for boys.


As expected, no statistically significant differences were found for mother- and father- reported internalizing problems of their children. These results are similar to those by Mellor et al. [11] and Yuh [16] for mother- and father-reported internalizing problems in children in Chinese and Korean samples, respectively. These findings may be because internalized behaviors such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal behaviors are more difficult to observe and are less visible and disruptive to family or school function than externalized behaviors; therefore, internalized behaviors are less likely to attract the attention of both parents. This suggests that children’s internalizing problems, which parents might not notice or be aware of, could be better investigated by other informants, such as teachers or clinicians [16].


The second hypothesis, positing that for mothers’ and fathers’ reports of the same child, mothers would report higher levels of prosocial behaviors for their sons than fathers would, was partially supported. For boys, maternal and paternal reports significantly differed on prosocial behaviors, with mothers reporting higher levels than fathers. A similar pattern was observed for girls’ prosocial behaviors. These findings are consistent with those of Yuh [16], who found that mothers were more likely than fathers to report higher levels of prosocial behaviors regardless of the child’s gender.


Consistent with previous research [11, 13, 14, 16], this study’s findings supported the third hypothesis, that agreement between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of their children’s behavior would be higher for externalizing problems than for internalizing problems. Low to moderate correlations were found between mothers’ and fathers’ reports of internalizing and externalizing problems. Such higher interparental agreement may be because externalizing problems are more observable than internal states and internalized concerns [11, 16]. However, the strength of these correlations was weaker than those in previous studies, which reported moderate to high correlations of internalizing and externalizing problems, including studies that have administered the SDQ to parents of younger children [11, 13]. Nevertheless, this pattern of agreement was also almost identical to the results of Mellor et al. [11] (Chinese sample) and Yuh [16] (Korean sample). In both studies, for both boys and girls, the relation between mothers’ and fathers’ ratings of their children’s behavior was highest for total difficulties, followed by externalizing problems, and lowest for internalizing problems and prosocial behavior. The results, thus, provide important information with regard to using one parent or both parents as a reliable informant for screening. Furthermore, clinicians and researchers can be justified in utilizing just one parent or caregiver as an informant on the SDQ [14].


The findings of the current study need to be interpreted in light of certain limitations. First, the sample size was relatively small which may limit generalizability. Hence, a large sample size would provide some confidence in the findings. Another limitation is that children’s behavioral strengths and difficulties were solely assessed via parents’ responses to self-report questionnaires. Therefore, parents may have provided socially desirable ratings of their children’s behavior by underestimating their problem behaviors or overestimating their prosocial behavior, which could lead to biased results. Although research suggests that parents, especially mothers, are reliable reporters of their child’s behaviors [10], teachers are also a useful source of information on children’s externalized and adaptive behaviors [28, 29]. Because parents and teachers interact with the child in different contexts, they may see different child behaviors. It would be ideal to gather data from multiple informants at home as well as from classroom observations to obtain a more objective view of children’s behavior [10, 29, 30]. Such a broad assessment, using information from adults with different relationships with the child in different settings, would help create a more comprehensive, reliable, and valid picture of the child’s behavioral problems and strengths and would reduce source and setting error variance [31]. Finally, the sample leaned toward a Korean immigrant population of higher socioeconomic status. Hence, this study primarily included well-functioning families with children at low risk. Stevens and Vollebergh [8] pointed out the link between SES and problem behavior and that, in some countries, immigrants have a higher SES than the host population, which would seem to be true of the current sample. The development of problem behavior does not appear to be affected by immigration. Rather, some argue that the problem behavior is associated with the experience of immigration in conjunction with a low SES [9, 32]. Therefore, the results may not be generalizable to other ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Future research should try to obtain a larger, more diverse group of Korean immigrant parents with primary school-aged children including at risk-children, from different communities or regions in New Zealand where these parents are known to live. Finally, the low reliability of the SDQ subscales was another limitation to this study. Studies that used the parent version of the SDQ has frequently reported the low reliability of its internalizing problem subscales (emotional symptoms and peer problems) [11, 33, 34]. Studies suggested that relatively low alpha values (especially those below .70) may be due to the small number of items in each subscale and several positively worded, as well as reverse-scored items located on the conduct and peer problem subscales [35, 36]. To deal with this issue, the current study used TiaPlus to compute the greatest lower bound (glb) of reliability. While, the alphas for most of the scales were improved, the reliability of the internalizing problems remained unresolved. Therefore, the findings for internalizing problems, in particular, should be accepted with caution and would require further investigation.


Despite its limitations, the current study discussed what is known about Korean immigrant parents’ perceptions of their children’s behavioral strengths and difficulties. Since this issue has attracted much interest, more research would be required within home and clinical contexts to understand various child behaviors.


Conflicts of interest: The author declares no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.







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