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Instability in many forms can hamper family development

This is the third in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What are some additional effects of changing family systems on modern family households?

A: In a release from the Urban Institute in 2013, a fact sheet on the Low-Income Working Families project focuses on both public and private resources to help families better meet their needs. Written by Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta, this report discusses "The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development."

Instability can be defined as negative, involuntary or abrupt change that threaten children's security. Such changes are dramatic and unexpected and disrupt the family household and children. The authors identified five types of childhood instability.

The first type is economic or income instability that occurs when there is a noticeable drop in family income. This economic instability most often is related to divorce or separation or involuntary job loss. Some fluctuation in family income is common. Economic instability occurs most often in low-income families who do not have safety nets to cover expenses out of the ordinary or unexpected expenses. Family income is related to academic achievement and intellectual development. Inadequate family income in early childhood is more predictive of poor cognitive outcome than low income in middle childhood and adolescence.

A second category of family instability is job instability. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of children with one unemployed parent doubled from 3.5 million to 7.3 million. In addition, 4 million parents were underemployed or working part-time involuntarily. Such families experience material hardship. Other factors that might affect the family are length of unemployment, whether or not the unemployed adult is the sole wage earner in the family, and whether or not the family has any savings, assets or other resources.

The employment instability of parents has been linked to lowered academic achievement and grade retention. When mothers experience job instability, children exhibit an increase in behavior problems, such as social withdrawal or bullying. They also are more likely to miss school than children who have mothers who have steady jobs or choose to change jobs.

Family instability is correlated with problem behaviors and some decrease in academic performance. Family upheavals that occur before 6 years of age and during adolescence appear to have the strongest effects. The young children need secure attachments, whereas adolescents need support, role models, and continuity in schools and residence.

Multiple changes in family structure further increase children's behavior problems. In recent estimates, between birth and 9 or 10 years of age, more than one-third of children experience their parents marry, separate, remarry, or start or end a cohabiting relationship. Children manage family transitions less well when they are lacking emotional support and family stability.

Another aspect of instability negatively affecting children is residential instability. In 2012, 12 percent of the population (age 1 and older) moved in the prior year. Early ongoing residential instability has negative effects on the mental health and the vocabulary development of children. During the elementary years, moving around can create less parent involvement and lower quality neighborhoods. Adolescents who move frequently have more negative behaviors, more difficulty adjusting and a greater chance of dropping out of high school.

Instability in child care also can disrupt children's development. Changes in early child care can result in poor attachments with providers and problems in behavior. In preschool children, early care and educational settings support the development of school readiness skills. Changes in care arrangements can be disruptive to continuity in learning.

National estimates report one-third of the fourth-graders, one-fifth of the eighth-graders, and one-tenth of the 12th-graders have changed schools at least once in the previous two year periods. School instability has the strongest affect during early grade school and high school. The more moves, the more negative the effects. Children from low-income and minority families are more likely to change schools than children from economically stable and non-minority families.

Research recommends safety nets of cash assistance, subsidized housing, child care and food be made available to the poor. Such measures would include eliminating red tape and centralizing eligibility procedures for multiple programs. In addition, poor families need child care assistance, longer job search allowances for unemployed parents and higher poverty thresholds based on more up-to-date figures. Research from the Urban Institute also emphasizes having systems in Early Childhood, Early Head Start and Head Start programs that identify families experiencing high stress and offer them extra services and case management.

The most stability and emotional support for children is provided by good parenting skills, mentally healthy parents and stable home environments. When parents can cope and adapt well to stressful changes, and can support their children through these stresses, the effect of adversities will be considerably reduced. The rapidity and the extent of the changes in family structure in the last 50 years have been aided by the invasive development of technology in every household, including poor families.

* Next week's article will continue with the effect of family structure and change, especially on children.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.