The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 22, 2014

Reflections on instability in children's lives: Why it matters and what we can do

July 22, 2014

In the past decade, I have become fascinated by the problem of instability in children’s lives. The first time I really thought about it, I was caring for my almost-three-year-old daughter while watching the horrifying footage of moms trying to keep their children quiet in the Louisiana Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. I watched, wondering how the children would be affected, both in the short- and long-term, and how on earth the parents were going to help their families feel safe in a world that had fallen apart around them.

These questions kept resurfacing in my professional and personal life. In my job, I studied ways to stabilize parents’ access to child care assistance during major life changes. At home, I watched my own child’s reactions to destabilizing events in our family, realizing the repercussions for her and how hard it was to stay calm and be a good parent, even with the resources that I had to support us both.

The questions started to build in recent years when I broadened my research focus to think about child care stability overall, beyond only child care assistance. Given that stability in child care arrangements is often dependent on stability in other realms of families’ lives, I did a quick review of instability in different domains: parental employment, housing, income, health, schools, and so forth. It revealed that many children were facing instability in many aspects of their lives, and that often instability in one realm—say, a parent losing a job—would lead to a cascade of instability in other domains (loss of income, food insecurity, parents’ separation, residential move, change in schools, etc.). So what does all of this mean for children and what we could do about it?

As a researcher, I felt that we needed to start by looking at the problem of childhood instability in a more comprehensive way. So I reached out to other researchers at the Urban Institute with similar interests. First, my colleague Heather Sandstrom looked across different domains of families’ lives to pull together what the research said about the impact of instability on children’s development. This work made it clear that instability leads to problems for kid’s development, but that there was very little work done to look at these issues in a holistic way. We now had a clear sense that there was a problem. The next step was figuring out how to start to tackle it.

With funding from the Foundation for Child Development, we have started to take this on. A small group of Urban Institute colleagues (Lisa Dubay, Julia Isaacs, Heather Sandstrom, and Margaret Simms) and I brought together a set of thoughtful experts—researchers, policymakers, practitioners, thought leaders, and funders—from different perspectives and areas of expertise to talk about instability and child well-being for a day-long meeting in November. Our conversation focused on three questions: What do we know? What do we need to learn? And what do we need to do?

It was a fascinating day… while in some ways, the conversations we had were enormously complicated, in other ways, they were incredibly simple. On a basic human level, kids who experience a lot of instability don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, it is hard for them to learn, grow, and develop to their full potential. Parents can help, but often have a hard time helping their kids feel safe when they themselves are experiencing instability and stress.

We wrote up the main ideas from the conference in a report released today, along with a volume of short essays written by some of our participants. The report lays out a lot of interesting questions, such as: What is instability? What aspects of instability seem most problematic? Where does it show up in kid’s lives and how does it affect children’s well-being? What are the characteristics of the child or the parents, or the contextual factors that may either buffer or facilitate the impact of instability on children’s development? What do we need to learn or study to better inform policy? And what does all of this mean for policy and practice?

While in some ways these questions are daunting because there is much we don’t know, I was heartened to see how much we do know and how many good ideas are out there when we put our heads together. It is clear, for example, that parents play a critical role in buffering the impacts of instability on their children, but sometimes need help to stabilize their own lives. It is also clear that “anchor institutions”—for example, child care facilities, schools, and pediatricians—can play an important role in providing children with a stable environment and stable relationships with adults. It is also clear how critical it is to make sure our safety net functions to stabilize families and provide children (and their parents) some security in their basic needs of food, health care, and a home. It is clear that we can learn from systems like the military that have been figuring out how to support children and families who face enormous amounts of instability and stress. It is clear that each of our public systems needs to start paying attention to the warning signs of instability in children’s lives and work across silos to help interrupt the cascade of instability hurting our kids.

So while this is a complicated issue that we need to learn more about, on some level it is also very basic. The message is clear: we need work together, across all of our systems and perspectives, to help stabilize families so their children can have a safe and trusting foundation from which to learn and grow.


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