“People that experience this misfortune experience lower positive affect and greater negative affect, so they have more anxiousness,” said Nicholas Turiano, assistant professor of psychology at West Virginia University. “They have a negative outlook on life.” 

But what counts as hardship? Researchers say to look beyond physical and emotional abuse and to consider environment as an important factor in child development. 

“Disadvantaged areas typically have a host of challenges — higher rates of crime and delinquency, neighborhood disorder, lower levels of collective efficacy, disinvestment, political alienation, failing schools and so forth,” said Heather Washington, assistant professor of sociology at WVU. “Any efforts to alleviate any of these issues could potentially improve the lives of residents who live in these neighborhoods.” 

Instability. Illness. Low-socioeconomic status. These are all lifestyle factors that often prove disadvantageous, and the consequences are long-lasting. When children experience environmental misfortune, it slows down what researchers call the “social clock.” Originally proposed by social psychologist Bernice Neugarten, the social clock theory suggests that all people of similar cultures reach milestones, such as graduation, securing a job or entering a long-term relationship, around the same time in their lives.

The way a child grows up includes family attitudes, substance abuse in parents, illnesses and divorce. Financial instability, especially housing insecurity, can lead to poor education and few, infrequent friends for the child. 

According to a Cornell University study published in Child Development, children raised in families with low incomes who move three or more times before the age of five have more behavioral problems than their peers. Ten percent of children in low-income families in the study had been living in their current homes for less than six months. In addition, the moving rate for those living below the poverty line was twice the amount of those living above. 

“But not everyone is doomed potentially,” Turiano said. “If we figure out psychological resilience factors then we can eventually target those in need with interventions because we’re never going to stop childhood misfortune, abuse or adversity, but we can at least help them develop psychological skills needed for a better life.” 

The amount of money a child’s family has also influences how they develop, both Turiano and Washington explained. Children growing up in an environment of lower socioeconomic status have a higher risk of developing poor behaviors, while children from wealthy families are less likely to develop bad behaviors than children from lower-class families. 

“Neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage, low levels of collective efficacy and general indicators of neighborhood disorder can exert negative influences on adult and child behavioral patterns,” Washington said. 

Regardless of how they are taken care of, children from middle and upper-class families generally still have access to food, good schools and teachers, after-school activities, safe shelter and are more likely to have positive role models, all characteristics of positive child development. They also have more places to escape challenging home environments, such as local parks, and more opportunities to succeed. Children of middle and upper-class families are more likely to have several positive roles models and better schools, which leads to these children being involved in after-school programs that teach skill building and responsibility and eventually enrolling in college. 

However, children who grow up in environments with a lower socioeconomic status tend to live in areas of increased crime and little greenspace, explains Washington. Children need play areas to develop good social behaviors, and greenspace can give children with challenging family dynamics solace from negative influences. There also tend to be more convenience and liquor stores than grocery stores within walking distance of the child’s home, which influences bad behavior and partly contributes to food insecurity. 

Heather Washington

“Even when accounting for important family dynamics, neighborhood conditions remain significant,” Washington said. 

There aren’t many other resources within walking distance of a child’s home, and many times, they have no other modes of transportation to get around. However, there are many youth groups, sports teams and community centers around the nation geared towards children living in these conditions. 

“They’re actually teaching them life skills that they’re not getting elsewhere,” Turiano said. “It’s teaching them values, responsibility and commitment, which are all important things the children should be developing.” 

These centers encourage children to get out of the house and away from poor conditions, while also offering coaches, community leaders and older children who act as positive role models in place of bad parents. The organizations also teach real-life skills and responsibility by incorporating games in forward-focused activities. 

“Getting residents, including youth, involved in their residential neighborhoods is critical for controlling crime and for developing relationships with other neighborhood residents,” Washington said. “I think any effort to provide youth with a positive environment within their residential neighborhoods can be beneficial.” 

In addition to growing up in adverse neighborhood conditions, some children also experience parental incarceration — both of which have consequences for children’s life course. 

“Unfortunately, incarceration and parental incarceration, in particular, has become a common life course event for many American children,” Washington said. “However, more recent work focuses on heterogeneity in the effects of parental incarceration on youths’ well-being.” 

Recent studies are beginning to consider the multiple and nuanced ways in which parental incarceration affects youths’ wellbeing. 

Washington’s research shows that paternal incarceration is less detrimental for a variety of young children’s behavioral outcomes when certain conditions are present. For example, while all children are adversely affected by a parent’s incarceration, those who have experienced domestic violence tend to suffer less than others in terms of their behavioral outcomes. Specifically, incarcerees’ children whose fathers have engaged in domestic violence exhibit fewer behavioral problems as a result of their father’s incarceration when compared to incarcerees’ children whose fathers have never engaged in domestic violence. 

“There are always these ‘what-ifs’ that affect how someone ends up, but I think that’s the cool part about our field,” Turiano said. “We hope there is always a way someone can find resilience, and we’re still just trying to figure out what those resilience factors are and how we can instill these resilience factors among youth who need it most.” 

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