Lynn Yeo || Contributing Writer
Multiple research studies have shown that children who are reared in safe and stable family environments are better at adapting to different social situations, learning to overcome challenges and managing their own emotions and behavior.
First, it’s important to understand what constitutes a stable environment. Brenda Jones Harden, author of “Safety and Stability for Foster Children: A Developmental Perspective,” states that traditionally, researchers define family stability in terms of parental mental health, secure relationships among caregivers and positive parenting techniques. Characteristics of the home environment, such as warmth, emotional availability, stimulation, family cohesion and day-to-day activities also influence family stability.
Routines and schedules can help create a stable and nurturing home life as well. Heather Sandstrom, senior research associate in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute, states in her research that children thrive when they know that there is a routine and they learn what to expect. Although changes in children’s lives are normal, sudden and dramatic disruptions can be extremely stressful and affect children’s sense of security.
Negative Effects Of Instability
According to a 2012 study by the Urban Institute, negative home environments during a child’s first three years are linked to a host of developmental issues, such as poor language development, later behavioral problems, deficits in school readiness, aggression, anxiety, depression and impaired cognitive development.
The Family Pediatrics Report said that children’s inability to cope can stem from social strains such as parental mental illness, substance abuse, violence and divorce. The resulting behavioral issues in their children can lead to further feelings of depression, helplessness, anger and exhaustion in parents, and create increased marital tension.
The Family Pediatrics Report also pointed out that children of divorced parents are at greater risk of emotional and behavior problems, which might lead to depression and poor school performance. These children tend to have more social difficulties and more problematic relationships with one or both parents. The effects of divorce may continue into adulthood and can create future marital instability in the next generation.
In addition, children who live with their stepparents and do not have regular contact with their birth mothers are less likely to have routine doctor or dentist visits. They are also less likely to have a fixed place for medical care and are less likely to wear seatbelts. Further, children seem to have stronger coping and adaptation skills and higher work productivity when their fathers play a visible and nurturing role in their lives.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s attachment theory suggests that mental health and behavioral problems can be attributed to early childhood problems. His theory explains that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others because this is what helps them survive. Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors will activate under any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity and fear to their parents.
Understanding Child Development Promotes Stability
Kathryn Ecklund, Ph.D, chair and professor of the Department of Psychology of Azusa Pacific University, points to the importance of providing resources and education for parents and families in order to promote stability at home.
“What I see a lot in my own clinical practice is [that] parents who are concerned about their children and have challenges in their relationship with their children want to have a more informed understanding of child development or adolescent development,” Ecklund said.
“This helps them take a different approach to overcome these challenges. So obtaining a developmental understanding of their child can certainly be helpful.”
An understanding of general child development and the child’s individual developmental needs is crucial to understanding the type of foster care children need.
“In the foster care system, we work really hard for family preservation, because generally children don’t do great in foster care. So, [family preservation] is kind of an alternative. When there is pretty dangerous or negative environments, the CPS system will attempt to provide therapeutic resource support that families need to get healthier because kids do best with their family,” Ecklund said.