The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 6, 2016

Change happens: It’s how we prepare for it that matters

December 6, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

My friends often turn to me for advice on parenting and child development: How do I find a good child care program? How early can I start letting my child start watching TV? How can I get him to sleep through the night? 

Recently, someone asked a different series of questions that got me thinking: Is it bad that we’ve moved so many times? Will she remember? How can I make sure she adjusts well? She had moved three times since her 4-year-old daughter was born, including to a different state away from her family.

I’ve studied the topic of instability for several years now. I’ve read the literature, interviewed key experts, and presented at several national conferences. But only recently has it become clear how complex this topic is—and that there are no simple answers.

Young children thrive when they have secure relationships with loving caregivers and consistency in their environments and routines. Stability in the first year of life is particularly important for developing infants.

But changes happen for a lot of reasons: some good, some bad. Some forms of instability can be stressful for children and lead to negative outcomes. Family transitions that occur early in children’s development can lead to problem behaviors, with multiple transitions producing worse outcomes.

While we can tell parents to not make any big changes they think will hurt their kids, the reality is children are bound to experience some instability in life. So what can we do?

Helping children deal with change

The bottom line: it’s less about what the change is and more about there being someone present who can support the child through the transition and make sure their stress response system can calm down

A positive relationship with an adult caregiver (parent, teacher, coach, etc.) is critical to buffer children from stress. Children demonstrate more negative behaviors when they lack emotional and material support at home during a family transition.

We need to raise awareness that transitions matter. Whether a move, a divorce, a job loss, or new job, it’s critical to teach children coping strategies to prepare them for and support them through transitions.  

Think of a child transitioning to kindergarten. Many schools host visits for children and parents to meet their teachers, families do back-to-school shopping, and parents celebrate the first day of school with photographs. Think of that transition—but instead, the child is suddenly dropped off at the bus stop alone with no information about where he or she is going.  

What’s predictable for a parent is not necessarily predictable for a child. Parents might do what’s good for them, but (unknowingly) not what is necessarily best for the child.

Supporting parents through transitions

Instability can be stressful for parents, too. Stress affects parents’ decisionmaking and ability to think clearly. And parents might make sacrifices for the good of their children that ultimately cause parents more stress.

We need to better prepare and support parents so they have the knowledge, competencies, and self-efficacy to be resilient and handle transitions better themselves. If they are equipped with coping strategies to relieve that stress, they can be better prepared to make good decisions and interact more positively with their children.

Parents can also be good examples for their children, which will help protect future generations from the potentially damaging effects of instability. Otherwise, children grow up seeing instability as normal and expected: when parents don’t stay in stable relationships, change jobs and move often, and live paycheck to paycheck and don’t plan well to save and stretch resources.

Although instability can affect families at any stage, focusing supports on new parents during the transition to parenthood could help lay a stable foundation. Community-based parenting education programs and mental health resources are valuable but are limited in availability and focus. Engaging obstetricians, pediatricians, and other trusted figures in screening for instability and providing information on the importance of stability, goal setting, and supportive transitions is another strategy.

Completely preventing instability isn’t realistic. But with the right strategies in place, we can minimize the effects. If society takes better care of parents, parents can take better care of their children.

Photo via Shutterstock

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