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Encouraging Stability is Key for Families in Flux

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

American families have changed dramatically since the 1960s. Whereas two parent households were the norm several decades ago, today families come in a variety of shapes and sizes that can present unique challenges to the stability and long-term development of children if not managed carefully.

According to current data, about 28 percent of households are headed by a single parent. Because of higher rates of divorce or births outside of marriage, roughly half of all children will at some time live in a single-parent home. In addition, many more children now live with parents who are cohabiting rather than married, a situation that can present an uncertain environment for children in the earliest years if partners change frequently.

But shifting family structures are only part of the instability that young children can experience. Even in homes with married biological parents, sudden changes like job loss may result in unmanageable stress for young children. The stress that accompanies major family shifts, such as dramatic income loss, changes in housing, sudden loss of contact between parents and children, or increased parental anxiety can prove harmful to the emotional and mental development of young children.

This is because during the first five years of life, children are still developing the mental, social and emotional tools to handle high levels of stress. In fact, studies have found that family instability exacts a heavier toll on children from birth to the end of kindergarten than to older children.

Sudden changes to family structure and households can contribute to difficulty sleeping in young children, behavioral problems, as well as poorer health outcomes later in life, such as obesity and asthma.

While there are no easy answers to these challenges – especially in relation to work outside the home, or serious life events, like divorce, that result in single-parenthood – there are ways parents can mitigate the negative effects of family instability.

As researchers at the Urban Institute conclude, parents can foster close relationships with friends and relatives, use consistent but sensitive discipline, and maintain consistency in scheduling and child care so children know what to expect from an early age.

For example, research shows that a consistent bedtime for babies and young children is critical for healthy brain development and lends order and stability to their lives. Likewise, finding time to talk with young children, while engaged in other activities like meal preparation or diaper changes, can help with bonding and vocabulary development, and increases quality family time.


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