21 minute read

Family Composition and Circumstance

Adoption, Alcohol, Tobacco, And Other Drugs, Foster CareOVERVIEW

Debbie Miller

Ellen E. Pinderhughes

Nancy K. Young

Charlie Ferguson


Much research has been conducted on what children need to grow up healthy, ready to learn, and to succeed in school. Many aspects of a child's growth and development, family circumstance, and school success have been studied, analyzed, and reported on in an effort to help parents, educators, health care professionals, and policymakers better understand what they can do to assure a child's success. A review of this research reveals two significant circumstances that seem to have the most impact on a child's growth, development, and ultimate educational success: poverty and family interactions. Barring significant birth defects or injury, these two circumstances hold the key to virtually every aspect of a child's life that affects his or her ability to grow up healthy and to learn. However, it must be noted that these two factors overlap in many respects and cannot be viewed in isolation. In addition, while it is recognized that a child's behavior is what is sometimes most disruptive to the family, due to the child's drug abuse, mental illness, disability, or other factors, the focus here is on the effects of outside factors on the growth and development of the otherwise normal, healthy child.

Effects of Poverty on Children

All other things being equal, children living in extreme poverty or below the poverty line for many years have the worst outcomes for health and school success. (The most chronically poor counties in the United States are in rural areas of Appalachia and in the South.) The effects of poverty are multiple and profound. Children who are born into families living in poverty generally do not receive adequate prenatal care. Lack of good nutrition for a pregnant woman can result in a baby that has a low birthweight, is more vulnerable to illness, is underdeveloped, and is likely to require more care, compared to the child of a well-nourished mother. Healthy brain development in children from birth to three years of age is critical in the development of speech and language, coordination, and reasoning. Children who suffer from poor brain development are at high risk for delayed speech and motor skills, neurological disorders, learning disabilities, and behavior problems.

Children living in poverty do not usually receive proper and timely health care, which can lead to chronic illness, such as asthma, or chronic infections, such as ear infections that can lead to hearing loss. They often do not receive required immunizations, which can delay school entry and lead to serious childhood illnesses. They are also more prone to complications from minor injuries or illnesses. Many mothers living in poverty suffer from depression, making them less able to properly nurture, stimulate, and interact with their children. As a result, their children suffer from neglect, failure to thrive, and decreased brain development.

Poverty frequently means that a family lives in a neighborhood that has a high rate of violence. Housing in these neighborhoods often exposes children to unsafe living conditions, including environmental toxins, poor ventilation, and infestations of rodents and insects. Low-income children have more than triple the risk of lead poisoning, which causes neurological damage and has been linked to lower IQ and long-term behavior problems such as impaired concentration and violence.

Poor families are more likely to be single-parent families with a parent who is young with unstable employment and low earning potential. These parents suffer stress associated with the constant strain of trying to provide adequate food, housing, clothing, and health care for their children. Parents under stress have a more difficult time providing the nurture and support necessary to establish positive bonding, enable speech acquisition, teach problem-solving skills, and promote early learning activities that affect school readiness. Parents living in poverty are more likely to have low educational attainment and less knowledge about early childhood education and brain development in infants. There are generally fewer books, educational toys and games, and outside opportunities for learning, such as family vacations and trips to a museum.

Children living below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to experience learning disabilities and developmental delays than are children who are not poor. Children with learning disabilities and developmental delays are more likely to experience school difficulties, and school failure at an early age is a leading indicator in school drop-out rates.

Families living in poverty also experience housing instability. Children who move frequently tend to have fewer friends, experience social isolation, and have higher truancy rates than those who grow up in more stable homes. In addition, social and educational services designed to support families in poverty are disrupted when the family moves frequently. Many families in poverty experience periods of homelessness, which exposes children to communicable diseases and the chaos found in shelters. Homeless children suffer increased rates of illnesses such as diarrhea, asthma, anemia, and infection. Simply being born into poverty affects a child's ability to grow up healthy, to be nurtured in a safe and stable home, to enter school ready to learn, and to remain in school and complete a high school education.

Family Interactions

Researchers have studied the effects on school success of single-parent families, blended families, extended families, divorce, death of a parent, foster care, adoption, and gay families. Within each of these family compositions, examples of children who thrive and children who fail can be found. But more important than family composition is family interaction–how family members relate to each other. Can a child who lives in a two-parent home where there is poor family interaction due to drug abuse, domestic violence, or mental illness be said to be at less risk of school failure than a child born into a single-parent family living in extreme poverty?

Family interaction significantly impacts the development of the children in the home, regardless of income level. However, research does show that certain types of family interactions are more common in low-income homes. For example, drug abuse and poverty are the two most common factors cited in domestic violence and child abuse cases.

In families where one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol, children are frequently neglected, and sometimes injured or abused. In addition, much of the family income is spent on supporting the drug habit, and the family suffers from the diminished resources available for food, clothes, housing, and medical care. Children growing up in homes where drug abuse is present are frequently exposed to violence, unpredictable behavior, overt displays of sexual behavior, absence of one or both parents, poverty, homelessness, and a lack of consistent supervision. Children are often truant from school and may lack school supplies and appropriate seasonal clothing. Nonrelatives are frequently present in the home and prevent the child from maintaining a close relationship with one or both parents. Children may also be expected to perform most household chores, such as cooking and cleaning, and to care for younger siblings or elderly grandparents. Children living in these circumstances may appear tired, lonely, sad, angry, afraid, malnourished, dirty, withdrawn, aggressive, anxious, or defensive, and they may exhibit a wide array of physical symptoms including complaints of stomachaches and headaches, hair loss from stress, nervous tics, stuttering, and thumb/finger/hand sucking when not age appropriate.

Children who live in homes where neglect, abuse, and/or domestic violence are present suffer many of the same effects as those mentioned above. The interactions between adults, and between adult and child, significantly impact the child's growth and development. Children who are abused or neglected suffer from low self-esteem, anger, depression, fear, anxiety, and feelings of abandonment. They manifest these feelings through physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes sleeping or eating disorders. Very young children are particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse in homes where domestic violence is present. The victim of domestic violence, which is most often the mother/woman present in the home, may ignore her children to appease the offender. Very young children are particularly at risk of injury or abuse from shaken baby syndrome or battered child syndrome.

Effects of Government Intervention

When the government intervenes to protect children living in homes with drug abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse, the family interactions are again affected. Once a determination is made that a child's safety is at risk, one of two approaches are generally taken: either the child is removed from the home and placed in a home with relatives or in foster care, or the family is provided with in-home counseling and support services. In-home services are considered less intrusive and disruptive to the child and the parent-child relationship. In an ideal situation, the in-home service provider visits with the family members at home and conducts counseling sessions with all family members to help the family interact in more positive ways. However, family members frequently resent the intrusion of an outsider and the child is blamed for the intrusion.

The focus of Child Protective Services, an array of agencies and collaborations designed to assure the safety of children, is specifically on the safety and well-being of the child. As a result, the adults in the home may view the child as the reason for the intervention, causing additional stress on the child. The child may feel guilty that his parents are required to attend counseling sessions, court hearings, or to pay for services. The parents may talk openly around the child about the intrusion and inconvenience of such services, and about their resentment. If the services are not effective, then additional court hearings are held and there may be additional finger pointing and blame directed at the child. Ultimately, the child may be removed from the home, again causing the child to feel that he or she is being punished.

When a child is removed from home, family interactions are very much affected. The child may be in a safer environment, but there is stress associated with the change in living circumstances. In general, the parent may not be happy with the removal of the child from the home. The parent may call or visit the child and accuse the new caretaker (either a relative or foster parent) of not caring for the child properly, and again the parent may cast blame on the child for causing the disruption.

The parents may also be required to make child-support payments while the child is out of the home, and they may have to receive some type of treatment or counseling as a condition for the child to return home. If the parent fails to complete the court-ordered treatment, the child may view that failure as an indication that the parent has abandoned or does not love him or her. It is reasonable to believe that any period of time in which the child is out of the home is a time of stress and confusion. Even when the child feels more physically safe when not at home, there are emotional attachments that bind the child to the home and make the removal difficult.

Effects of Mental Illness

The term mental illness describes a broad range of mental and emotional conditions that disturb a person's behavior, mood, thought processes and/or social interpersonal relationships. Children who live with a family member who is mentally ill must deal not only with the stigma of mental illness in their family, but also with the stress caused by that illness. While the extreme circumstances of mental illness are widely reported in the news (such as mothers who, while suffering from depression, kill their children), the much more common situations of a parent who suffers from some type of mental disorder or a parent who is caring for a relative with mental illness are found in millions of homes in the United States. Some of the most common types of mental illness are:

  • Depression, which is characterized by extreme or prolonged periods of sadness.
  • Schizophrenia, a very severe illness characterized by disordered thought processes that can lead to hallucinations and delusions.
  • Bipolar disorder, which is a brain disorder involving periods of mania and depression.
  • Dementia, which is a loss of mental function usually associated with advanced age and characterized by memory loss, personality change, confusion or disorientation, impairment of judgment, and deteriorating intellectual capacity. There are many types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

Mental illness can occur in any family. When it first occurs, the family members may at first deny that something different has happened. During an acute episode, family members may react with surprise, fear, and alarm, and once the episode is over there may follow a period of relief and calm. But, as symptoms persist, it becomes clear that life will never again be normal.

Children are particularly affected by the strange behavior of a parent or older sibling. They may have little knowledge about mental illness and blame themselves for what is happening to their relationship with a loved one. They are frequently afraid to discuss their feelings with others, particularly their friends or people outside their families, and they therefore become isolated and withdrawn. How other family members handle the situation is critically important to the child. If other family members, particularly the other parent, become distraught and helpless, then the child will become even more distressed.

A child will receive less attention at this time, because other family members are attending to the member with the illness. The child may begin to exhibit behavior problems at home and at school, become depressed or withdrawn, and exhibit sleeping or eating disturbances. Every episode becomes more difficult to handle, and the child may try to escape by running away from home. Even though the child is not being abused, the effects appear similar, with anger, aggression, fear, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and sadness all being possible outcomes.

Similar circumstances exist when a family is faced with caring for an extended family member who develops dementia or any other mental illness. If the family member moves into the home, the child is sometimes displaced from his or her room, daily routines may change, and finances may be strained. All of this is very disruptive to children, particularly school-aged children. It is difficult for a child to see a change in the behavior of a beloved relative (grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.), which might frighten the child. The presence of this person in the household affects the parent-child relationship, as parental responsibility is shifted and there is less time to spend with the child. The resultant stress and concern can create serious family problems. Family life is disrupted and often unpredictable, and the needs of the ill family member often become the priority.

What Do Children Need to Be Successful?

Although much research has focused on issues that negatively affect the outcomes for children, little research has focused on what characteristics make children successful. In the mid-1990s the Search Institute, led by Dr. Peter Benson, conducted a nationwide survey of 100,000 young people in more than 200 communities to learn about the assets of successful teens. This research specifically targeted teenagers, but the implications of how the assets were developed are applicable to children of all ages.

The survey identified forty developmental assets that help young people make better decisions, choose positive pathways, and grow up to be competent, caring, and responsible. These assets are grouped into eight categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identification.

Support. Children need to feel loved and supported by their family. Teens reported that spending time with parents, being hugged, being told that they are loved and doing things as a family are important to them. Children learn to love by example. Eating at least one meal per day together as a family, spending time with each child individually, listening and valuing their opinions, respecting their concerns, attending school events, and going to worship together are all examples of how families can show support and love to their children.

Empowerment. Young people need to feel that they are valued by their community and that they have the opportunity to contribute to the welfare of others. They need to feel safe at home, at school, and in the neighborhood. Those surveyed reported that they need and want to feel useful in their communities, and that they need to have opportunities to give service back to the community.

Boundaries and expectations. Young people need to know what is expected of them and whether their activities and behaviors are acceptable, or "inbounds." Boundaries are important not only within the family, but in the school and neighborhood as well. Families need clear rules and consequences for behavior, as well as ways of monitoring behavior. When the rules are clearly communicated and the consequences are fairly and consistently enforced, children are more comfortable controlling their own behavior, and they make better choices. Teenagers report that positive adult role models are helpful and desirable. Adult role models can be teachers, scout leaders, coaches, parents of friends, or adults they meet and know through community activities such as worship, community service, and sports.

Constructive use of time. Young people need opportunities for constructive and creative activities. These opportunities can occur through participation in faith-based organizations and youth programs; through lessons in art, dance, music, drama, and sports; or through learning skills at home, such as cooking, decorating, sewing, building, or designing. Parents can encourage their children to explore arts, sports, or other creative outlets by volunteering to help with a sports team or youth group, or by taking the child to local museums, dance performances, or plays. Activities such as these encourage physical activity, promote problem-solving skills, stimulate creativity, and help young people meet others with similar interests. As an interest in such activities develops, there is less opportunity or interest in watching TV, hanging out on the street with undesirable companions, or experimenting with drugs and sex. As children grow older, parents can encourage them to obtain part-time employment to earn money and teach them how to manage their money.

Commitment to learning. Young people need to develop a lifelong commitment to education and learning. Children need to experience at a very young age that learning is fun and that parents value education. Every effort should be made to assure that the child is successful in school. Parents should also model lifelong learning by engaging in new learning experiences, taking part in community and government life, and helping their children apply their knowledge to real life activities. Parents should visit their child's school, talk with the teacher, and help with homework. Parents can help their children bond with their school by encouraging participation in school activities, showing school spirit, inviting school friends home to work on projects, and participating in school cleanup and work days.

Children who are good readers are better learners, so children should learn to read for pleasure as well as for schoolwork. Parents should start reading to children when they are very young, and they should teach children that books have wonderful stories and interesting information. It is helpful to take children to the public library as soon as they are able to look at picture books. As children grow older, books can be read together and discussed. Parents can start a young-reader book club with their child and their child's friends to encourage them to read together.

Positive values. Young people need to develop strong values that guide their choices. These values include caring, equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and restraint (believing that it is important not to use drugs or alcohol and not to be sexually active). These values help young people make good decisions and it is important for parents to help their children develop these values. It is not enough just to tell children what their values should be; parents must demonstrate that they have these values and how these values translate into everyday life. Children learn by example, so if parents are caring, honest, responsible, and demonstrate restraint in the use of drugs and alcohol, then children will learn these things. As a child grows older, parents can label the values and show how they and others incorporate these values into their lives.

Social competencies. Young people need skills and competencies that equip them to make positive choices and to build relationships. Life is full of choices, and how young people make those choices will affect how they spend their time, who their friends are, what work ethics they have, who they choose as a mate, and how they raise their own children. The ability to make choices, and to see how those choices impact the future, is critical in becoming a successful adult. Very young children have a very short sense of time, and they make choices based on what is immediately available to them and what they need or want in that moment. But as children grow older they can learn that choosing to watch TV now means that there is not enough time later to read a story or play a game. Parents can begin to help children understand how a decision will affect their goals. Goal-oriented decision making is a skill that must be learned and practiced successfully.

Another social competency is learning to make friends. Friendships will not last long if a child is self-centered and insensitive to the feelings of others. Parents can help children learn to be empathetic and sensitive by discussing with them how other people feel when they are treated unkindly or when they are hurt. Children learn to respond with empathy and kindness when they see their parents respond to them with these same feelings.

Children must also learn to be comfortable with people of different cultures, races, and ethnic backgrounds. This is sometimes more difficult if the family lives in a very homogenous neighborhood, but through books, films, television programs, and newspapers parents can make children aware of the different people and cultures in the world, and teach them that just because something is different it is not to be feared or disliked. In communities where people of different cultures live, it is important for parents to treat everyone with respect and to introduce their child to experiences of different cultures. Parents can take the child to markets and stores that sell products of different countries, listen to music from other cultures, or invite people of different cultures to speak to a class about their customs, dress, and food.

Children need to learn to resist negative influences and peer pressure. Parents can help by engaging in role-playing situations with them and talking with them about choices that their friends are making. Children need to learn active resistance and about the dangers of being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Children also need to learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. Parents can start teaching children at a very young age that hitting is not acceptable behavior, and how to resolve conflicts without violence. Parents must also model this behavior in their choice of discipline and in their own behavior.

Positive identification. Young people need a strong sense of their own power, purpose, worth, and promise. Teenagers reported in the Search Institute survey that it was important for them to feel that they have control over things that happen to them. Parents can reinforce their children's sense of power and worth in many ways. Helping children learn to make good choices and praising them when those choices are made, helping children identify their strengths and showing them how to use those talents, and giving children time for recognition are all ways of building self-esteem. It is important for young people to feel positive about their future, and to feel that their life has purpose.

Teenagers easily fall into periods of depression due to hormonal changes that occur during different stages of development, and due to the peaks and valleys that occur in friendships and relationships. One day they are on top of the world and the next day everything seems pointless. Some of this is quite normal in the life of a teenager, but parents can help them view their lives with some perspective and minimize the negative feelings that occur.

Parents should not always shield younger children from failure and disappointment. It is important for children to experience failure along with success, as these experiences help cushion hard times later in life. Children who have learned to cope with disappointment and felt the pride of having overcome adversity become much more resilient teenagers and adults.

While much of what has been learned from research on family composition and circumstance seems quite logical, the impact of this research is profound. It helps explain why some children rise above seemingly overwhelming odds of poverty and family composition to succeed, and why others struggle.


BENSON, PETER L.; GALBRAITH, JUDY; and ESPELAND, PAMELA. 1998. What Kids Need to Succeed. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

BROOKS-GUNN, JEANNE, and DUNCAN, GREG J. 1977. "The Effects of Poverty on Children." The Future of Children 7 (2):55–71.

DEYOUNG, ALAN J., and LAWRENCE, BARBARA. 1995. "On Hoosiers, Yankees, and Mountaineers." Phi Delta Kappan 77 (2):104–112.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR CHILDREN IN POVERTY. 1997. Poverty and Brain Development in Early Childhood. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia School of Public Health.

SHERMAN, ARLOC. 1997. Poverty Matters: The Cost of Child Poverty in America. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.



PATHWAYS TO PROMISE: MINISTRY AND MENTAL ILLNESS. 2001. "Impact of Mental Illness on Families." <www.pathways2promise.org/families/impact/htm>.

PSYCHIATRY24×7. 2001. <www.psychiatry24x7.com>.


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