Chaotic households undermine children’s development of executive functioning through less responsive parenting

Chaotic households undermine children’s development of executive functioning through less responsive parenting
Written by Publishing Team

Children living in chaotic households exhibit poorer executive functioning, according to a study published in BMC Psychology. The results revealed that this effect was in part due to lower parental responsiveness in chaotic households.

Executive functions begin to develop in early childhood, helping to guide children’s mental processes, emotions and behaviors. These functions include inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Since these processes are sensitive to the influence of the environment, it follows that an unfavorable infant environment could have an impact on their development.

Study authors Krysta Andrews and her team conducted a study to explore how a chaotic home environment might influence executive functioning in preschool children. They also explored the potential role of parental responsiveness, suggesting that chaotic households tend to be less conducive to positive parent-child interactions.

“I was interested in this topic because many of us have probably experienced some form of domestic chaos at some point in our lives. For some it may be more consistent than others, which can be a significant challenge for families, ”said Andrews, postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University.

“So, like many in the research community, I became interested in the effects of this chaos on children’s outcomes. In particular, I focused on executive functions as they develop rapidly during childhood and can be susceptible to environmental threats such as chaotic homes. I wanted to get a comprehensive overview of the state of the literature examining the connection between domestic chaos and children’s executive functioning.

A final sample of 128 children and their mothers participated in the study. The children were on average five years old and most (88%) of the mothers were either married or in a common-law relationship. During two-hour home visits, mothers completed various questionnaires regarding the level of chaos in their home, the number of times their child had moved in the past year, changes in their relationship status (p. eg, divorce, remarriage) and their own depression. symptoms. Mothers and children performed a battery of tasks measuring various aspects of executive functioning – attention / inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Mothers were also filmed as they made tours of their homes and interacted with their children.

The researchers then coded the transcripts of the home visits for the number of words related to disorganization and instability, two dimensions of household chaos. They also coded the behavior of mothers when they interacted with their children, noting them on parental responsiveness.

Parental responsiveness was found to be positively associated with children’s scores for each executive function task. Family chaos – a composite score that took into account mothers’ questionnaire responses and word count on home visits – was negatively associated with parental responsiveness. Then, it was found that the domestic chaos was linked to the executive functioning of the children, through the responsiveness of the mothers. Specifically, children from more chaotic homes had less responsive mothers and, in turn, lower executive functioning.

When the researchers analyzed the two dimensions of household chaos separately, they found that household instability, but not household disorganization, was negatively related to children’s performance in executive tasks, both by itself. and by parental responsiveness. An unstable home can be particularly impactful as it forces parents to adapt to a changing environment, leaving them less energy and focus to engage in supportive interactions with their children. The study authors suggest that an unstable household could also cause children to withdraw or feel helpless, which may limit their chances of receiving the positive interactions needed to nurture executive functioning.

“An important takeaway from our study is that there is some evidence that household chaos is linked to lower executive functioning in children. This can make it difficult for children to regulate their emotions, stay focused on tasks, and make decisions; which has implications for their academic success and their ability to socialize with their peers, ”Andrews told PsyPost.

“However, we also saw in our study and other emerging research that it is important to establish regular family routines (eg, bedtime, mealtime) as they can help provide structure and stability important to children. “

The researchers noted that a future study should use a longitudinal design to assess causation and explore the potential cumulative effects of household chaos.

“There are still many unanswered questions in the area of ​​domestic chaos and the outcome for children and families. For example, in our study, we noticed that there weren’t a lot of studies that looked at the effects of household chaos over time, ”Andrews explained. “This is important because it can give us insight into the stability of its effects and whether there are certain periods of development that are particularly vulnerable to one or more aspects of domestic chaos. It can also help us identify certain factors that may lessen the effects of chaos on a child’s executive functioning (eg, positive parenting practices). This is one of the many questions that research studies are still exploring. “

“Research into domestic chaos and its effects on children and their families continues to develop,” Andrews added. “This is relevant to inform future programs designed to meet the individual needs of families, promote greater stability and order in the home, and foster healthy developmental trajectories for children. “

The study, “Effects of Household chaos and parental responsiveness on child executive functions: a novel, multi-method approach”, was written by Krysta Andrews, James R. Dunn, Heather Prime, Eric Duku, Leslie Atkinson, Ashwini Tiwari and Andrea Gonzalez.

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