Children living in chaotic households demonstrate worse executive functioning, according to a study published in BMC Psychology. The findings revealed that this effect was partly driven by lower parental responsiveness in chaotic households.
Executive functions begin to develop in early childhood, helping guide children’s mental processes, emotions, and behaviors. These functions include inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Since these processes are susceptible to environmental influence, it follows that an adverse childhood environment might impact their development.
Study authors Krysta Andrews and her team conducted a study to explore how a chaotic home environment might influence executive functioning among kindergarten-aged children. They also explored the potential role of parental responsiveness, proposing that chaotic households tend to be less conducive to positive parent-child interactions.
A final sample of 128 children and their mothers participated in the study. The children were an average age of five, and most (88%) mothers were either married or in common-law relationships. During two-hour home visits, mothers completed various questionnaires concerning the level of chaos in their home, the amount of times their child had moved in the past year, changes in their relationship status (e.g., divorce, remarriage), and their own depressive symptoms. Both mothers and children completed a battery of tasks measuring various aspects of executive functioning — attention/inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The mothers were also filmed while they gave tours of their homes and while they interacted with their children.
Researchers then coded the transcripts of the home tours for word frequency counts related to disorganization and instability, two dimensions of household chaos. They also coded the mothers’ behavior as they interacted with their children, scoring them on parental responsiveness.
It was found that parental responsiveness was positively associated with children’s scores for each executive function task. Household chaos — a composite score that took into account mothers’ questionnaire responses and word frequency counts from the home tours — was negatively associated with parental responsiveness. Next, it was found that household chaos was linked to children’s executive functioning, through mothers’ responsiveness. 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 tied to children’s performance on the executive function tasks both on its own and through parental responsiveness. An unstable home may be particularly impactful because it requires parents to adjust to a changing environment, leaving them with less energy and focus to engage in supportive interactions with their children. The study authors suggest that an unstable household might also lead children to withdraw or feel helpless, which can limit their chances of receiving the positive interactions needed to nourish executive functioning.
“With additional support through replication and causally sensitive designs, both parenting and stability within the home are potential targets for interventions that could act to promote healthier developmental trajectories of executive functions in children,” Andrews and her team say. They note that a future study should use a longitudinal design to assess causality and to explore the potential cumulative effects of household chaos.
The study, “Effects of household chaos and parental responsiveness on child executive functions: a novel, multi‑method approach”, was authored by Krysta Andrews, James R. Dunn, Heather Prime, Eric Duku, Leslie Atkinson, Ashwini Tiwari, and Andrea Gonzalez.