Do Positive Parenting Practices Moderate Parental Mental Health and Child Behavior among Homeless Families?

By Smith, Shardé McNeil; Holtrop, Kendal et al. | Family Relations, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Do Positive Parenting Practices Moderate Parental Mental Health and Child Behavior among Homeless Families?


Smith, Shardé McNeil, Holtrop, Kendal, Reynolds, Jamila, Family Relations


Homelessness is a unique and substantial contextual stressor that is experienced by many families in the United States. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2014) estimates that, on a given night in 2014, well over half a million people were experiencing homelessness. More than 37% of this population is composed of people in families, which amounts to 67,613 families with children being affected by homelessness. Furthermore, these homeless families are typically comprised of a single mother with young children and are disproportionately African American (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2010), suggesting the presence of additional burdens and vulnerabilities as a result of social location. Given the significance of this problem, it is important that scholars continue to explore the correlates, risk and protective factors, and outcomes associated with homelessness.

Homelessness presents a complex set of challenges for families (see Bassuk, 2010, for a comprehensive review). Children who are experiencing homelessness have been found to have poorer educational outcomes, behavioral problems, increased likelihood of trauma, and mental health problems (David, Gelberg, & Suchman, 2012; Perlman, Cowan, Gewirtz, Haskett, & Stokes, 2012). Concurrently, their parents are experiencing an overall increase in stressful life events, fewer economic resources, chronic neighborhood and domestic violence, limited access to social support, low self-esteem, and greater depression (Meadows-Oliver, Sadler, Swartz, & Ryan-Krause, 2007; Perlman et al., 2012; Torquati, 2002; Zugazaga, 2004). Scholars have found that as a result of the increase in stressors experienced by parents, children are more likely to suffer from lower levels of adjustment and an increase in maladaptive outcomes such as the ones just listed (Gewirtz, DeGarmo, Plowman, August, & Realmuto, 2009; Torquati, 2002). In particular, the existing research shows that children in homeless families are more likely to report externalizing behavior problems in the clinical range compared to children living in low-income housing. Furthermore, these studies show that such child behavior problems are related to parents' mental health and the stress in homeless families (Gewirtz, Hart-Shegos, & Medhanie, 2008; Masten, Miliotis, Graham-Bermann, Ramirez, & Neeman, 1993). Thus, child externalizing behavior problems are of particular concern in the homeless context. Although it is important to understand the negative outcomes of experiencing homelessness, it is also vital to understand how parents' existing resources can serve as a buffer for the effects of poor parent mental health on the negative outcomes children experience. Thus, in this study we sought to explore how parents, despite being in distress, utilize parenting practices that positively affect their child's externalizing behavior.

Parenting in Homeless Families

As Hausman and Hammen (1993) asserted, parents who are homeless face a double bind. On one hand, they must struggle with the traumatizing experience of losing a home and the associated aforementioned consequences. On the other hand, these parents are also faced with the challenge of needing to function as a reliable and nurturing parent while providing a supportive environment to their children. As a result, parents may face elevated depressive symptoms and parenting stress, which have both been found to influence child externalizing behavior in housed families of varying wealth (Anderson, 2008; Deater-Deckard, 2006; England & Sim, 2010; Guajardo, Snyder, & Petersen, 2009). For these reasons, it is essential to understand the unique effects of parents' psychological health and parenting stress on child externalizing behavior among families who are homeless.

Parent Psychological Distress and Child Externalizing Behavior Among Homeless Families

Parental well-being is integral in optimal developmental outcomes for children; however, approximately 50% of homeless mothers report mental health issues (Weinreb, Buckner, Williams, & Nicholson, 2006), and the prevalence of major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders in this group is higher than the general population (Bassuk et al. …

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