Early Exposure to Environmental Chaos and Children’s Physical and Mental Health

Rebekah Levine Coley, Boston College
Alicia Doyle Lynch, Boston College
Melissa Kull, Boston College

Environmental chaos may impede children’s health and development, particularly during the earliest years when children are most susceptible to environmental insults. This study evaluated a high-risk sample, assessing 495 low-income children living in poor urban neighborhoods from infancy into middle childhood. Following ecobiodevelopmental theory, multilevel models found numerous distinct domains of environmental chaos were associated with children’s physical and mental health outcomes, including housing disorder, neighborhood disorder, and relationship instability, with no significant results for residential instability. Different patterns emerged in relation to the timing of exposure to chaos, with infant and middle childhood exposure most strongly associated with children’s functioning. The intensity of chaos also was a robust predictor of child functioning. Contrary to expectations, neither biological vulnerability (low birth weight status) nor parental stability moderated the role of chaos. Rather, parental stability (maternal psychological distress) served as a path through which environmental chaos was associated with children’s functioning.

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Presented in Session 219: Economic Circumstances, Child Health, and Well-Being