Family instability is any factor that creates additional challenges within a family unit that ultimately affects a child/children’s cognitive, behavioral and emotional development, and places their development at significant risk due to the parents’ inability to effectively manage the home and the living environment.

Family instability can come in many forms; economic, emotional, social, and physical. The challenges and struggles of family instability can be passed on from generation to generation if the instabilities are not corrected or the family and children do not receive appropriate physical and emotional assistance when needed.

Types of family instability

Economic or financial instability can come from a layoff, job loss, job change, or significant financial burden such a mortgage, car payment or medical debt. It impacts the families ability to meet the financial needs required to maintain a safe standard of living which includes sufficient food, shelter, medical and utility needs to have a safe and functional home. Children living in an economically unstable home may not have sufficient food, clothing, or utilities; if old enough they may be forced to work to help make ends meet in the home.

Emotional instability in a family is often expressed through neglect, anger, anxiety and fear. Parents that are working demanding jobs or multiple jobs may not have time to adequately show attention and affection toward their children. They may overly express anger and frustration toward the children due to fatigue and share fears with children about adult concerns placing undue stress and anxiety on children. Love can also be an emotional instability when it becomes excessive and or inappropriate.

Social instability in a family is expressed through neglect of tasks around the home and through anger and anxiety expressed by adults. The adults fail to express healthy social interactions which impact how the children will interact with each other and with other adults. They do not receive appropriate social training and this leads to dysfunction in the educational setting among peers, teachers and greatly impacts academic success.

Physical instability in a family can come in two forms; the first one is the physical setting in which the family resides. The child may reside in a home that is not physically safe or supportive; it may have no heat, electricity, water, sewer disposal. The house may be in general ill repair. The second physical instability comes from the physical interactions that occur between family members. A child may be exposed to a physically threatening environment where items are thrown, broken, or used to demonstrate fear and anger.

Types of family instability

Causes of family instability

While family instability focuses on these four forms of economic, emotional, social, and physical the cause of these instabilities can be numerous. Job loss, economic hardship, divorce, separation, infidelity, incarceration, extended family, unexpected pregnancy, sexual abuse, physical abuse, substance abuse, foreclosure, medical situation or emergency can all contribute to family instability. Certain socio-economic demographics and cultural groups experience higher levels of family instability.

Consequences of family instability

Children living in homes that experience family instabilities may experience extreme emotional expressions and extremes; they will suffer cognitively and often struggle in school. They will often have difficulty socializing and expressing age-appropriate social behavior. They will often show higher levels of anxiety and have irrational ideas and fears. Children may have clothing that is dirty or doesn’t fit; they may show signs of malnutrition or have eating disorders and behaviors associated with food. Children may tell stories that are inconsistent or fanciful in an attempt to hide the instabilities and insecurities.

In multiple children home,  younger children may be victims of the adults as well as that of older siblings that mimic situations or take out their own instabilities on younger children; younger children are more likely to be supervised by older siblings in the absence of adults.

Instability in any form is difficult for children. However, change is inevitable in life for all of us. Role modeling positive ways of managing difficult times can assist them in learning to effectively cope when life happens. Parents play an extremely important role in how children manage tough situations. Parents that keep in mind the long-term impact of how their behavior will impact their children now and in the future are a step ahead in assisting their children to have a positive future.

Marsha Ferrick PhD BCC is a licensed clinical psychologist, life coach and child counselor that can help in diagnosing dyslexia and dysgraphia. Get in touch here!