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

Early Child Res Q. 2015;32:94-104. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.03.001.


Environmental chaos has been proposed as a central influence impeding children's health and development, with the potential for particularly pernicious effects during the earliest years when children are most susceptible to environmental insults. This study evaluated a high-risk sample, following 495 low-income children living in poor urban neighborhoods from infancy to age 6. Longitudinal multilevel models tested the main tenets of the ecobiodevelopmental theory, finding that: (1) 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; (2) different patterns emerged in relation to the timing of exposure to chaos, with more proximal exposure most strongly associated with children's functioning; and (3) the intensity of chaos also was a robust predictor of child functioning. Contrary to expectations, neither biological vulnerability (proxied through low birth weight status), maternal sensitivity, nor maternal distress moderated the role of chaos. Rather, maternal psychological distress functioned as a pathway through which environmental chaos was associated with children's functioning.

Keywords: Disorder; Environmental Chaos; Instability; Low-Income Families; Mental Health; Physical Health; Poverty.