Economic instability and household chaos are linked to physiological dysregulation in children

New research has found that economically disadvantaged preschoolers tend to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when their family suffers from economic instability and household chaos. The findings, which appear in the Journal of Family Psychology, provide more evidence that instability is uniquely problematic for human development.

“My interest in the impact of economic inequities on family functioning and child wellbeing grew out of a childhood in which I was acutely aware of the disparities framed by my own socioeconomic privilege and the economic hardship experienced by some of my relatives,” said study author Ellie D. Brown, a professor of psychology and director of the Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab (ECCEL) at West Chester University.

“Too often we blame individuals in poverty for their problems, and those of their children. Growing up watching members of my extended family struggling with poverty illuminated for me the multiple challenges created, exacerbated, and maintained by economic hardship, versus the stabilities in everyday functioning that many middle- and upper-income families can take for granted, including things like regular meals, consistent work schedules, or the heat and lights turned on daily.”

“Sometimes research studies attempt to account for the impact of poverty by including just a variable representing family income. Yet this approach is limited particularly when studying low-income families because the restricted range of income within this group may mask its effects. Often if child development research includes a variable additional to income it is a ‘parenting’ variable and, unfortunately, sometimes the results of this research reinforce the bias that poor parents are ‘poor’ parents. My colleagues and I were interested in challenging this bias,” Brown said.

“My research is guided by Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory, which proposes that child development takes place within multiple layers of ecological context. Economic instability, which is fairly common for families facing economic hardship, increases the likelihood of chaotic living conditions at home; Bronfenbrenner proposes that instability and chaos may be particularly stressful for children.

“Child cortisol was chosen as an outcome because this stress hormone may help to explain the negative impact of poverty on cognitive, social-emotional, and physical health functioning. Cortisol levels typically rise in response to stress, helping us to mobilize resources to respond. Yet the repeated and chronic stress associated with poverty may take a toll over time, leading to dysregulation in stress hormones. Cortisol influences not only physiological functioning but also brain development and may partially explain how poverty influences children’s brain functioning,” Brown said.

For their study, the researchers examined the cortisol levels of 374 economically disadvantaged 3- to 5-year-olds attending a Head Start preschool program in Philadelphia. The children’s primary caregivers also provided information about the family’s economic adversity and household chaos.

Economic adversity was assessed with questions about the inability to pay household bills or meet monthly expenses (financial strain), the inability to afford necessary household and leisure items (material hardship), and adjustments made to cope with fluctuations in income (economic instability).

Brown and her colleagues found that only economic instability — not material hardship or financial strain — was directly related to the children’s cortisol levels. Higher levels of economic adversity were also associated with more household chaos, which in turn was associated with higher cortisol.

“Poverty is about more than low income. One of the biggest problems associated with poverty is a lack of stability for children and families. Economic adversity is linked to economic instability, and economic instability can make it difficult for families to maintain predictable family routines and processes. Instability and chaos are inherently stressful for children, and predict elevations in stress hormones that could over time pose problems for children’s learning, emotions, and physical health,” Brown told PsyPost.

“The next time you see a child struggling and assume the blame lies with bad parenting or genetics, think again. It may be more accurate and productive to focus our attention on poverty circumstances that undermine family processes and child wellbeing. Ending poverty will be critical for allowing all children to reach their full potential. As we work toward this goal, it will be important to consider how we can promote stability for children and families.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“An important caveat is that this research was correlational and the effects demonstrated may not be causal. Variables we did not account for in the present study could help to explain the demonstrated relations linking economic adversity, economic instability, household chaos, and child cortisol levels,” Brown explained.

“Our measurement strategy was limited particularly in terms of measuring economic instability (which inherently implies change over time) at a single time point. It would be useful for future studies to measure economic circumstances, including instability, at multiple time points and to see how change over time in these circumstances relates to household chaos and child stress levels.”

“Although mounting evidence suggests that instability and chaos are particularly problematic aspects of poverty circumstances, relatively few policies or programs have been implemented with a specific goal of mitigating the impact of economic hardship by promoting greater stability for families and children,” Brown said.

“Ultimately, adequate economic resources are important for promoting stability, but as we work toward ending poverty, it would be useful to test programs that support stability (for example, in finances, housing, relationships, and family processes) for children and families. Promoting stability may have a meaningful impact on child development.”

The study, “Economic Instability and Household Chaos Relate to Cortisol for Children in Poverty“, was authored by Eleanor D. Brown, Kate E. Anderson, Mallory L. Garnett, and Erin M. Hill.