Homeless Children and Mental Development Impact


Following the scientific method, the research question would have to be whether children who are homeless have a mental development impact. There are possible extraneous variables in relation to this question, such as gender, age, ethnicity, and region. Most of these minor variables relate to the demographics of homeless children. The independent variable, in this case, would be homelessness, the cause due to their environment and their socioeconomic background relationship. The dependent variable would have to be the social-emotional development, or mental health because it is the effect of being homeless, the cause.

Based on the prior knowledge stated before, the hypothesis for this review of the literature would have to agree that there is a social-emotional impact within homeless children’s mental development.

As for how the experiment to test the hypothesis should be executed, the best option would possibly be doing surveys or observations since the topic heavily relates more on the social-psychology side when dealing with mental disorders.

Perhaps starting with longitudinal methods, observing homeless children developing social-emotional impact and recording data over an extended amount of time.

Children who are homeless with their families are a fast growing population in western countries such as the United States and many European countries. Just in the United States alone, 1.6 million children reside in homeless shelters (Haskett, Armstrong, & Tisdale, 2016). Many of these children are under the age of seven years old, making up almost half of the population. In most cases, children who are homeless are victims of abusive guardians and experience the maltreatment such as separation from their caregivers or their caregivers are diagnosed with depression, are substance abused dependent or partner violence and can no longer handle their children in the house.

Though these are a variety of experiences for each child, several circumstances become risky, especially in the mental health and its obvious development delays. Young children are more likely to develop trauma from maltreatment and environments they have to adapt and live in, affecting social and emotional development and including risks for maladjustment.

Homelessness, unluckily, is a socioeconomical problem. It lies on the very bottom of the working class in society’s hierarchy of the wealthy. Much like what Emilé Durkheim observed, the suspicious suicide rates in a country involving in capitalism do happen more so often. Most adults who are homeless result with ruthless habits including substance abuse and alcoholism. Poverty gives those homeless the inability to pay for home utilities or just to find shelter in general, all which can contribute to social-psychology and make plenty of room for physical and mental health problems. Perhaps it is the loss sense of community and, with children, family breakdowns. Children who are a part of homelessness with their family are more exposed to maltreatment and lack of care for their own children due to stress, depression, the idea of caring for one’s self first and so on.

Review of Literature

Children who experience homelessness are described to how low intellectual function, including developmental delays and poor school performance. Studies also show a weakness in verbal and language development among homeless children. According to Haskett, Armstrong, and Tisdale, 14% of homeless children younger than five years old have had at least one indicator of a serious mental health concerned compared to the 47% of homeless children between 5-11 years. These causes could potentially come from external problems (2016). There are possible individual differences in functioning, which the authors state that child gender and age “might explain heterogeneity in adjustment.” Girls may have higher scores in measures of development versus boys on the measure of development, therefore, in mental health terms, boys who are suffering homelessness are more likely to develop mental health risks versus girls who are suffering homelessness. From their prior knowledge, the authors conduct a study: they observed and reviewed over 88 children who were from homeless families. The hypothesis was that the sample mean score would be lower in disability for the children who were homeless versus the norming group, children with homes. This is expected in areas of social-emotional function and development, where 20% of the sample was required to “score in the clinical range based on prior studies” and previous research allowed the authors to assume that “a larger proportion of boys than girls would obtain scores indicating significant parental concerns regarding poor social-emotional function of their children.” The findings for the study clearly issue that there were “high rate of concerns amount the parents of the children” and one-fourth of the participants were required for referrals to mental health services. The purpose of the study is to be able to detect homeless children with no only development and learning problems, but detect the alarming and disturbing mental health symptoms based off their environment the children are living in. Here, this proves that those who are homeless does have mental affects and justify the low intellection function only from living in an homeless environment.

In relation to mental health services, the American Journal of Public Health from Paris, France, a peer-reviewed study, shows results of high prevalence with developmental delays, marking 80.9% from the 557 children observed. The results from the study agree that “homeless children are at high risk of poor developmental at birth and during the course of development, all which can affect their physical and emotional health” (Darbeda, Falissard, Orri, Barry, Melchior, Chauvin, & Vandentorren, 2018). These children illustrated the concerns for academic failure and, naturally, future behavior problems. From the participants, 61% of children were found to have receptive verbal functioning at or below the first percentile for their age and 38% had shown emotional and behavior difficulties. Despite the countries being difference, both studies from above present the clear social-emotional behavior and development difficulty within homeless children. It also represents that no matter where homelessness occurs, whether it is in the United States or France, the results for mental health issues show positive.

Drifting from the idea of just children who are homeless alone, there are studies that also include parent and guardian involvement as children live their lives in homeless shelters. This report analyzes qualitative results from interviews with 19 parents. These interview questions and answers provide good evidence due to the fact that these are reflections during homelessness and how it is affecting their children residing in a shelter, which impacts their parenting abilities due to lack of positive parental role modeling (Anthony, Vincent, & Shin, 2018). Questions that come from the study include how for the parents of homeless children became homeless or how has homelessness affect their child’s physical and mental health, education, and heavier. The reason for questions such as these are to grasp an understanding of the family’s needs prior and after shelter stay. Despite the fact that most of the parents during the interview had infants, there were signs of babies in constant distress. Parents would answer how homelessness affected their children in a variety of ways.

According to Anthony, Vincent and Shin’s 2018 study, they mention how children were confused and had the desire to leave when asked about why they were placed in homeless shelters and when they would be released to go home. Children are taken notice of sadness, anxiety, depression, and even withdrawal from parents. This evidenced to be a “range of internalizing behavioral problems including withdrawal, anxiety, and depression” (2018). These emotions were clear as children ate food such as losing weight during their stay at the homeless shelter from lack of eating. Homeless families who have been in shelters before do admit that their children would store and hide food due to the fear of hunger. Another family mentions that going out to eat at a buffet makes their child uneasy due to the experience of lining up for food at the shelter. From this alone already shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Consequently, aggression indicated another problem within homeless children. Children who were being difficult and aggressive worsened over time throughout their stay at the shelter. Parents would lose respect from their children and indicate the constant anger within the family. A mother reported her children throwing toys, yelling and screaming at her, and signs of developmental regressions and relapses. The mother in the study recalls her son urinating on himself even though her son was toilet-trained. When the family found a house, the child stopped but started to have other concerning behaviors such as fearlessness, wandering off, and lack of affect. The parents showed equally concerning mental health issues such as this idea of disempowerment and unable to punish and discipline children, where parents would lose control of what they are doing.

On the idea of parent-child relationships, the nurturing parent-child relationship is an important factor for children to achieve the social-emotional capabilities of a successful development. Many researches have established links within the social environment beginning at an early age to improve later development. For parent-child interaction when families are homeless, a child’s only caregiver are normally single mothers who have limited education and no economic and social support. A homeless child’s caregiver focuses their attention on their basic human needs, not a love of support and understanding for their children is given during the time a child needs support the most. Studies conducted by Kelly, Buehlman, and Caldwell thoroughly analyzed the homeless parent-child interaction in order to “train parent-child advocates who were serving a sample of very high-risk families to provide early intervention to facilitate health parent-child interaction” and secondly to evaluate the impact of this training (2000). The children analyzed were aged birth to three years old. The results of social-emotional and behavior interaction proved a difference before and after collaborations with positive feedback, the purpose of the study. This study proves that children in homeless situations do show negative and lack of social-emotional development feedback due to neglection from the parents of their homeless environment.

Most of the time, homeless families are made up of a mother and her children, hence most women are victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) and therefore, running away with their children. Because a caregiver’s stress, as stated in the other studies, affect children, women in shelters lack no support or help in shelters. Women who are victims of IPV with children are less likely to have home ownership and continuous employment. They would struggle financially and more likely be dependent on others. Therefore, these result in depression, where mothers try to refrain from harming themselves and attempt to protect their children from the exposure and the traumas of IPV, according to a study (Meyer, 2016). Women are too afraid to go back to their property due to the fear of being hunted down. These homeless shelters made women feel safe. However, as maltreatment is recognized in the family, this affects the children’s development and well-being.

Since families need nurturing to keep social-emotional and behavior aspects in order, Adie and Delafield-Butt’s analysis a PhD case study and project introduce the use of Nurture Group efficacy in primary schools as being a part-time intervention support that join with mainstream schools as a strategy to assist children with social, emotional and behavior difficulties (SEBD), who aim to focus on disrupted learning in early years due to “fractured or chaotic family relationships.” It gives children the opportunity to recreate early socio-emotional experiences by creating a social-emotional bond with an assigned group caregiver. “The Project aims to understand the social developmental processes experienced in children in Nurture groups that in turn assist their engagement with school learning” (2016).

Comparing to the homeless family studies, this project by Adie and Delafield-Butt follows a child who is not homeless but shows symptoms of neglect as well. One child, named Peter, demonstrated behaviors interfering with learning. Peter was described as emotionally insecure and does not engage with other peers, cannot focus, and does not participate. Peter does not involve himself in class and shows negativity towards himself and avoids eye contact. To the researchers of this project he is the “lost child who is overwhelmed” of the rules, instructions, and interactions in the classroom, which illustrate his confusion and preoccupied mind. After attending 75-minute sessions a week, a year later Peter shows improvement in these areas, most specifically his social-emotional development (Adie & Delafield-Butt, 2016). Perhaps it is his interaction with the assigned caregiver that allowed Peter to catch up in development since he had maltreatment of his caregivers. According to developmental psychologist Sigmund Freud, certain issues during the appropriate stage need to be resolved. However, when they are not, the individual is “stuck” and going through stagnation until they can overcome their issue. Peter’s negative background comes from maltreatment and lack of nurture from parents.

On the other hand, sometimes children are born with SEBDs due to other environmental factors, such as perinatal depression. Perinatal depression has shown links between a child’s behavioral problems as well, since mothers are dominated by depression, doubt, and distress. A study conducted by Junge, Garthus-Niegel, Slinning., Polte, Simonsen, and Eberhard-Gran in 2017 claims that “perinatal depression is considered to have negative impact on a child’s health because it coincides with a period of substantial brain development during which infants are entirely dependent on their primary caregivers.” The study focuses on different time periods of a mother’s perinatal depression, since this also impacts early a child’s social-emotional and behavior development. All of the children were watched from birth until 2 years old, however the mothers were assigned to take a questionnaire to specific age intervals of children aged 6-60 months. The questionnaire grouped into three response categories by frequency their child’s behavior: most of the time, sometimes, rarely, or never. Interestingly, 55 out of the 1,259 women consumed alcohol during pregnancy, which is plausible due to the depression.

The study finds that “premature birth was strongly associated with an increased risk of having children with social-emotional problems,” also just as equal as perinatal depression in their study. Results were astonishing as they found that perinatal depression did played a role in a child’s social-emotional development based off the answers the mothers gave. This study was able to prove that despite not being homeless, negative feedback has an impact on children’s social-emotional behavior during their early stages due to the stress and depression from their mother’s, causing babies to be easily distraught. Based off this study, homeless families undergo stress and depression as well as many other negative factors such as addiction or substance abuse. If homeless mothers who gave birth to babies were in such cases, it is likely that their children would lack the social-emotional advancement due to lack of parenting and neglect by focusing on themselves and leaving less room for a parent-child interaction.

Studies have also found that emotional and behavioral problems are more common among homeless children than their poor, but housed peers. (Kelly, Buehlman, & Caldwell, 2000). From these studies, clearly shows that there is a cycle that repeats itself. These parents of different situations and backgrounds are passed down to the next future generations until someone decides to help and resolve these problems within the homeless community.


  1. Adie, J., & Delafield-Butt, J. T. (2016). Social and emotional development in nurture groups: The narrative structure of learning through companionship. Psychology of Education Review, 40(2), 3–9. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umuc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu/login.a spx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=119119068&site=eds-live&scope=site
  2. Anthony, E. R., Vincent, A., & Shin, Y. (2018). Parenting and child experiences in shelter: A qualitative study exploring the effect of homelessness on the parent–child relationship.
  3. Child & Family Social Work, 23(1), 8. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umuc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu/login.a spx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=127423951&site=eds-live&scope=site
  4. Darbeda, S., Falissard, B., Orri, M., Barry, C., Melchior, M., Chauvin, P., & Vandentorren, S. (2018). Adaptive behavior of sheltered homeless children in the French
  5. ENFAMS Survey. American Journal of Public Health, 108(4), 503–510. https://doi- org.ezproxy.umuc.edu/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304255
  6. Haskett, M., Armstrong, J., & Tisdale, J. (2016). Developmental status and social-emotional functioning of young children experiencing homelessness. Early Childhood Education Journal, 44(2), 119–125. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-015-0691-8
  7. Junge, C., Garthus-Niegel, S., Slinning, K., Polte, C., Simonsen, T., & Eberhard-Gran, M. (2017). The impact of perinatal depression on children’s social-emotional development: a longitudinal study. Maternal & Child Health Journal, 21(3), 607–615. https://doi-org.ezproxy.umuc.edu/10.1007/s10995-016-2146-2
  8. Kelly, J. F., Buehlman, K., & Caldwell, K. (2000). Training Personnel to Promote Quality Parent-Child Interaction in Families Who Are Homeless. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20(3), 174. https://doi-org.ezproxy.umuc.edu/10.1177/027112140002000306
  9. Meyer, S. (2016). Examining women’s agency in managing intimate partner violence and the related risk of homelessness: The role of harm minimisation. Global Public Health, 11(1/2), 198–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2015.1047390
  10. Vijay K Mago, et al. “Analyzing the Impact of Social Factors on Homelessness: a Fuzzy Cognitive Map Approach.” BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, BioMed Central, 23 Aug. 2013, bmcmedinformdecismak.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6947-13-94.
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