The Science of Upheaval
Early childhood homelessness can damage kids’ development.

By Abigail Kramer

Several years ago in downtown San Diego, a big-eyed, curly-haired boy named Jimmy moved into a homeless shelter with his mother and two older siblings. At 19 months, Jimmy had seen more than his share of upheaval. His family had spent months bouncing between friends and relatives before they landed at the shelter. Soon after, his mother came under investigation by Child Protective Services for verbally abusing her kids.

What concerned staff at the shelter most, however, was that Jimmy and his mother seemed shut down. They seldom made eye contact; Jimmy almost never smiled. He should have been well on his way toward learning to talk, but he rarely made sounds at all.

Among kids who end up in shelters during early childhood, Jimmy’s story is far from atypical. For many families, homelessness comes not only with its own inherent sense of danger, but with an entourage of traumatic experiences. In various national studies, researchers have found that homeless children are far more likely than other kids to experience abuse, witness family violence and spend time in foster care.

The cumulative chaos exacts a heavy toll on children’s development. In one frequently cited long-term study of homeless families in Massachusetts, researchers found that more than one-quarter of kids under age 5 suffered from depression, anxiety or aggression. More than half of preschoolers showed at least one major developmental delay and, by the time they were 5 to 7 years old, many had below-average IQ scores. Staff at homeless shelters often find that children have physical delays from spending long, transient days strapped into strollers.

These numbers make intuitive sense: Child psychologists have long understood that there’s a connection between traumatic childhood experiences and poor life outcomes. It’s only over the past two decades, however, that scientists have begun to understand the process by which early life events—especially those involving trauma and chaos—get built not just into children’s psyches, but the architecture of their brains and bodies.

The key lies in understanding how human brains grow. Babies are born with approximately 100 billion neurons, each connected to thousands of others through an immensely intricate network of chemical pathways that develop, strengthen or die in response to outside stimulation. Each experience a baby is exposed to—everything she sees, every song she’s sung, every time she’s held or fed or smiled at—sends a series of electrical impulses shooting through the developing circuits of her brain, strengthening pathways and inciting new connections to grow. During the first few years of life, that growth happens exponentially. The cerebral cortex region of an infant’s brain can produce two million new synapses every second—a warp-speed neural spider web that sets the parameters of a person’s capacity to think, learn and process emotion.

In order to grow healthy, durable connections, babies and toddlers need interaction, stimulus and, perhaps most important, a sense of safety that frees them to explore and experiment with their worlds. Ideally, that security grows from a reliable emotional attachment to at least one caregiver. Behavioral researchers are fond of quoting the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, the founder of the Head Start program for low-income preschoolers. “In order to develop normally,” Bronfenbrenner wrote, a child needs to interact with “one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid.”

When parents are homeless, it can be insurmountably difficult to provide the kind of environment in which children thrive. Ruth Newton, a psychologist who worked at the shelter where Jimmy’s family lived, writes that it’s common for homeless mothers to spend little time making eye contact with their children, since their focus is often consumed by the external world and the threats it may present to their families’ survival. When that stress filters down to kids, the effect can be toxic, weakening brain growth and causing permanent damage.

Researchers are still unraveling the process by which stress causes harm, but the operative mechanism seems to involve cortisol, a hormone our bodies produce when we perceive danger. Cortisol is indispensable, should you find yourself facing a stranger in a dark alley, or even the more abstract menace of a looming deadline at work. But it is markedly less useful for coping with the grinding, long-term stress that results, for example, when a child’s family falls apart.

When children’s brains are exposed to cortisol too often and for too long—either because of traumatic experiences like losing a home or simply because they absorb the ambient stress that so often accompanies intractable poverty—it can alter the structure of the genes that control hormone production, disrupting the stress-response system and stunting growth in parts of the brain. For a kid like Jimmy, whose stress response system had likely been hyperactive for much of his life, there may be few resources left to support healthy growth.

The good news, in the world of child development, is that researchers have discovered a powerful antidote to the toxic effects of chronic stress: When children are raised by particularly responsive or nurturing parents, their cortisol patterns and brain function are far more likely to be healthy, even if they live in the midst of upheaval and chaos.

The even better news is that parents can learn concrete skills to give their kids the stabilizing benefits of nurturing care. Over the past two decades, a growing number of child psychologists have experimented with a treatment known as dyadic therapy, designed to reinforce caregivers’ power to protect their children’s development. The goal is to help parents understand how much they can benefit their kids, simply by paying attention and responding to their cues.

Dyadic coaches work with a parent and child together, usually in a room with toys and comfortable places to sit. Often, they start by encouraging a parent to get down on the floor and play with a child—following the child’s lead rather than giving orders or correcting. In many dyadic programs, staff members videotape a few minutes of each session, isolating moments of connection to play back to parents later.

Dyadic programs have shown promising results. In one videotaped program, called Circle of Security, the developers reported a 40 percent increase in healthy attachment patterns between children and parents who participated in 15-week sessions. Other studies have found significant decreases in kids’ behavior problems and parents’ overall stress.

The problem for homeless families is that they rarely have access to these kinds of prolonged, intensive therapies. By necessity, shelters and transitional programs tend to spend their resources on families’ most glaring needs, like medical care, drug treatment and finding a longer-term home.

The program where Jimmy landed—a transitional home called St. Vincent de Paul Village—was a rare exception: Staff had recently decided to try a videotaped dyadic therapy program with a small number of struggling parents and kids. Jimmy and his mother joined the program soon after they came to the shelter, with results that Newton, the shelter psychologist, describes as transformative.

Jimmy’s mom got to see, up close and in freeze-frame, that when she made eye contact with Jimmy, he looked back. When she smiled at him, he smiled too. She got to see her place in the natural rhythms of toddlerhood: Jimmy would venture around the room, checking out toys, then come back to her for comfort or rest. No one else could give him the sense of security that she could provide—once she had witnessed for herself how important it was to respond to his inquiries and attempts to connect.

After 11 therapy sessions, Newton writes, staff at the program documented noticeable improvements. Jimmy smiled more and his speech improved. His mother yelled less, and her child services file was closed. Having seen her strengths as a parent, she said she was encouraged to use them more often.

At the end of seven months, Jimmy’s family left the shelter. One of the harsh realities of working with homeless families, Newton writes, is that therapists don’t get to see the long-term results of their efforts. The goal, she argues, must be to use every opportunity to give families skills that will help them as they move forward. “We try to give something in each session that the parent can use, because we never truly know if we are going to see the family again.”