Methods: This study uses the data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study of nearly 5,000 families with new born children in 20 large U.S. cities. The sample includes 1,894 low-income children at 5 years of age, including 76 homeless, 252 doubled-up, and 1,566 other low-income children. The data captures five aspects of parent-child interactions: physical and psychological aggression towards the child, child neglect, parental engagement, and parental stress. Bivariate analyses were conducted using a weighted t-test. Multivariate regression was used to estimate the effect of homeless and doubled-up episodes on parenting outcomes.
Results: Mothers in homeless families were more likely to report physical aggression (e.g., shaking, pinching, slapping, and hitting) and psychological aggression (e.g., yelling or screaming, cursing, and threatening to hit) toward their children than those in housed, low-income families. Mothers who experienced homelessness were less likely than those who did not to be engaged with their child in various activities (e.g., singing songs, hugging or physical affection, storytelling etc.). The homeless group also showed a significantly higher level of parental stress than the housed, low-income group. There were no significant differences in child neglect between the homeless and housed low-income families. The doubled-up group was similar to the homeless on most measures of parenting.
Conclusions and Implications: Using the data with a rich set of housing, parenting, and control variables for a multicity sample, this study showed that homelessness is associated with less optimal parenting behavior and that both homelessness and doubling-up have an adverse effect on parent-child interactions. The findings suggest that homeless service providers need to identify and respond to families' needs for support services to reduce their risk for the child protective service involvement. Measures to prevent homelessness can result in additional benefits, including improvement in parent-child interactions and reductions in the need for child protective services. With nearly one-quarter of the sample experiencing either homelessness or doubling-up, housing instability clearly was a common experience among low income families. This finding points out that we need to develop effective strategies to identify and work with families in precarious housing or those at risk of homelessness.