Increased conflict at home and less warmth in parenting are the price paid by children for family isolation experienced by minorities in neighborhoods.

Living in neighborhoods with a high turnover of people damages parent-child relationships, particularly among ethnic minorities, according to our pioneering study of over 3,000 US families.

Our findings, from research in Chicago, are worrying because millions of people live in neighborhoods with considerable residential flux. Indeed, residential transience has increased since the Great Recession—home ownership has fallen by 5 percent since 2008, and the number of people living in less stable, rented accommodations has increased. Widespread neighborhood impermanence suggests a significant risk to parenting quality and to large numbers of children.

“Good parenting needs support from family or neighborhood. If you don’t have support from one of them, you need it from the other. And if you don’t have it from either, your parenting faces significant strains.”

Transience leads to weaker communities and less mutual support

Research shows that unstable residential neighborhoods tend to have weaker communities, with less mutual support. Parents miss out on the trust, cohesion and sense of social control that develop when local populations are less transient. They can’t draw as much on help with day-to-day needs; for example, they may not know a neighbor they can ask to baby-sit their children while they’re at work. Weaker social ties put more stress on parents and can harm their mental health; stress and poor mental health, in turn, are linked to harsh and reactive parenting, as well as to fears about unfamiliar neighbors and about allowing children to play outside.

Ethnic minorities are especially hit by the loss

In unstable neighborhoods, we found reduced parent-child warmth among Hispanic families and heightened conflict in both Hispanic and African-American families. This vulnerability among ethnic minorities seems to reflect their greater reliance on local family and social networks, which tend to be disrupted in unstable neighborhoods.

The way unstable neighborhoods affect parenting relationships poses a danger to healthy child development. Research shows that parent-child relationships characterized by high warmth and low conflict foster better school performance, higher self-esteem, lower depression, and fewer behavior problems among children of diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Our study also demonstrated that family social support can make a big difference in these unstable neighborhoods, particularly to ethnic minority parents. When parents could count on family support, it offset the decline in parent-child warmth that was otherwise evident in these transient localities.

Where family support is plentiful, parents feel that they have more resources to draw on, and parenting becomes easier. This probably explains why parents in unstable neighborhoods who can count on help from their families have better relationships with their own children. In contrast, we found that family support didn’t make such a difference for parents who live in more stable neighborhoods.

“Policy makers should look for ways to stabilize neighborhoods, making it easier for low-income families to stay in one place and perhaps to own their homes. They should also consider how to strengthen community bonds that are weakened when people move in and out of neighborhoods.”

These findings confirm the adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” – whether it involves members of the extended family or non-relatives, and resources around the parents in a stable neighborhood. Good parenting needs support from one of these pillars – family or neighborhood. If you don’t have support from one of them, you need it from the other. If you don’t have it from either, your parenting likely faces significant strains.

Rising inequality risks greater residential instability in neighbourhoods

Policy makers should recognize that rising inequality, exemplified by the drop in home ownership, adds to neighborhood residential instability and poses risks for parenting and nurturing future generations. Our research shows that these risks are particularly severe for ethnic minorities, who tend to rely more on family and social networks than do their White counterparts. Through poverty, members of minority groups are also more likely to find themselves living in less stable neighborhoods and enduring the consequent social isolation.

Policy makers should therefore look for ways to stabilize neighborhoods, making it easier for low-income families to stay in one place and perhaps to own their homes. They should focus on improving local employment to keep people in the area. They also should consider how to strengthen community bonds that are weakened when people move in and out of neighborhoods. When people can build trust in their neighbors, poorer communities, in particular, will be able to make better use of the assets and social capital that surround them.

Header photo: Mary Anne Enriquez. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

Policy-makers should focus on creating programs that help stabilize neighborhoods and strengthen community bonds.

References

 Riina EM, Lippert A, Brooks-Gunn J (2016), Residential instability, family support, and parent-child relationships among ethnically diverse urban families, Journal of Marriage and Family 78.4