December 01, 2013

Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development: A Research Synthesis

Alanna Pawlowski

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The effects of the recession over the last several years have exposed an increasing number of children to instability. Instability, and the stress that accompanies it, can have lasting effects on child development. 

A new report by the Urban Institute analyzes research on instability across various fields to increase knowledge of the overall effects of instability on children’s development. It also details implications for policy and practice. The report looks at five areas of instability: family income, parental employment, family structure, housing, and the out-of-home contexts of school and child care. 

Instability is different than gradual or expected change; it is sudden, dramatic, and often uncontrollable. Such change can affect children’s feelings of security and hamper a parent’s ability to support their children through the change. The report calls attention to the underlying role of parenting, parental mental health, and the home environment in providing stability and support to young children. Given the central role parents play in how children are affected in the long-term, the report suggests making additional efforts to target parental mental health and parental skill-building. 

Other practice and policy suggestions include: 

  • Having systems and policies in place in early childhood programs and schools to identify families who are experiencing many changes is one method to target extra services and case management. 
  • Well-designed, two-generational intervention programs aimed at supporting positive parenting, reducing parental and childhood stress, and strengthening family coping strategies can ease the impact of instability on children. 
  • A broad range of government programs also play an important role, especially for children in low-income families. 
  • Safety net programs provide financial assistance to families in the form of cash payments or subsidized housing, child care, or food, all of which help to alleviate the immediate effects of instability. 
  • Considering whether any administrative practices of these programs inadvertently increase instability. 
  • Simplified reporting procedures, longer eligibility periods, and a single, centralized eligibility process for multiple programs are some potential strategies. 

The report is accompanied by a fact sheet that highlights key findings from the research review, information on how each type of instability can impact a child’s development, and recommendations for policy and practice.