Strong at the Broken Places: The Resiliency of Low-Income Parents

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Several organizations are actively promoting two-generation approaches, most notably The Aspen Institute, Foundation for Child Development, and Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Social-emotional competence in children – the ability to manage emotions, express needs and feelings, deal with conflict, and get along with others – plays a critical role in their cognitive skill building, mental health, and overall well-being. In addition, social-emotional competence has proven to be an important protective factor, buffering children from stressors and aiding in the prevention of serious emotional and behavioral difficulties, such as internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Decades of research have shown that children living in poverty are significantly more likely to develop internalizing and externalizing problems than are their peers who are not poor, with the magnitude of the differential increasing with longer exposure to impoverished conditions. Many of these children are labeled as “at risk” – of academic difficulties, school failure, suspension, expulsion, dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

While living in disinvested communities with limited economic and social resources has been shown to hamper the acquisition of such essential skills as self-regulation/self-control, empathy, patience, communication, and persistence, the quality and stability of a child’s relationships with primary caregivers, most notably parents, has been shown to support the development of these skills. However, poor parents – who are constantly dealing with challenges ranging from unemployment, underemployment, and low pay to substandard housing, violence exposure, substance abuse, and health/mental health problems – must first focus on meeting their children’s most basic subsistence needs. Ensuring that they have food, clothing, and shelter often leaves time for little else. This not only makes parents feel anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed, but can also produce inconsistent or harsh parenting that falls short of meeting their children’s emotional needs.

Still, despite the multitude of challenges that poor parents face, many succeed in helping their children flourish. They raise children who are able to develop and maintain friendships; have good relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults; and enjoy a range of other social gains that aid them in making successful transitions from childhood to adolescence, and to adulthood. What can we learn about these resilient parents that can be shared with others parents – low income and not – who are struggling to raise children to be socially and emotionally competent and, in turn, resilient?

By examining factors that promote or hinder children’s healthy development, this policy report draws on recent studies to illustrate the importance of parent resiliency in the development of social-emotional competence among low-income children. The report concludes with program and policy recommendations that have proven effective in promoting the development of protective factors, reducing vulnerabilities, and cultivating resiliency among low-income parents and, consequently, their children.

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