Family Hardship and its Effects on Cognitive Development

Studies have shown that poor families and those who experience hardships have a negative impact on the cognitive development of the children. However, the timing and nature of such hardships and their exact effects is not known yet. This study aimed to look at the effects of financial difficulties on the cognitive development of five-year-old children. The results showed that continuous financial crunch of the family from a very early age may hamper the cognitive development of children. Instability of the family structure otherwise did not show similar harm.

It is known that adverse economic family situations and unstable families can hamper the development of children and affect their future education and occupational achievements, along with their well being and general health. This study included a large sample of children who were less than five years of age and tested their cognitive or brain development to understand the effects of poverty and bleak living conditions. The authors also attempted to understand whether being raised in an unstable family raised the risk of depressed cognitive development in the children. They attempted to observe which of the adversities had a larger effect on the children’s development and understand whether the results could be explained by other factors like nature of parenting, parental education, occupation, and housing.

* For this study, children born from September 2000 to January 2002 were included. This meant that 18,819 babies that were born in UK during this period were included. The families that could be completely followed up until the children were five years of age in 2006 were 8,874 mothers and their children.
* All the participating families were given questionnaires to answer, following which they were interviewed. The children were tested for their cognitive development.
* Other factors like long-term family income; transitions in the family; housing conditions; parent nature, education, and occupation; and child characteristics were taken into account while analyzing the data.

Key findings
* The results showed that 62.1 percent of the surveyed families did not classify as continuously poor during the study period. Approximately 13 percent of the families were termed as persistently poor.
* It was found that on assessing the cognitive abilities of the children using standard scores, those who hailed from the poor families achieved five to seven points less than those who did not. The poor performance was observed in vocabulary for naming, and non-verbal skills were less affected than verbal skills on the cognitive tests for these children.
* It was observed that of all the studied families, 56.6 percent families were stable two-married-parent families, 12.7 percent families were two-cohabiting-parent families, and 7.8 percent families were single-parent families.
* Children from two-married-parent families performed best on vocabulary verbal and non-verbal skills compared to the children from the other two types of families. However, this difference was not significant when other factors like the parents’ nature, education or housing conditions were considered.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors admit that because this was a long-term study and involved a large number of participants, they lost nearly 40 percent of their initial study sample. At the end of the study, most of their population represented the non-poor families and this may have affected their results. The authors agree that apart from factors such as poverty, familial instability, poor housing conditions, parental nature, and child’s characteristics, there may be other factors also that affect a child’s cognitive development. Notable among these is the child’s immediate environment and genes. The authors suggest that these factors require further studies to be conducted, in order to understand the implications of these factors on the child’s mental development.

This is the first study that attempts to assess the effects of poverty and financial difficulties on a child’s mental development before the age of five. It shows that familial hardships may affect a child’s cognitive development more severely than broken or unstable families. The latter effects are mitigated in the study when other factors like housing conditions, parental education and nature, and so on are considered. The authors speculate that this study may shed light on the earlier questions that have been unanswered regarding the effects of poverty on growing children. This study sample had 62.1 percent non-poor families. Thus, the authors add that although this study is large, a more representative sample would be necessary for further analysis.

For More Information:
Family Hardship, Family Instability, and Cognitive Development
Publication Journal: Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, April 2011
By Ingrid Schoon; Elizabeth Jones; University of London, England

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *