According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, more than 1.3 million children experience homelessness each year, with families making up 40% of those experiencing homelessness in the United States. Many of these families and children previously experienced trauma before becoming homeless. They can also be more likely to experience cycles of trauma. To illustrate, children undergoing homelessness are more likely to be sick and hungry, face learning disabilities, and experience major mental disorders than their housed children counterparts.
Now you may ask, how is a child’s mental health affected by experiencing homelessness?
Well, based on The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, the effects of homelessness on children’s mental health includes social isolation, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), substance misuse, sleep, anxiety, and loss of personal objects and sense of place.
Firstly, social isolation is when a child experiencing homelessness feels socially distant from their peers in school. They may feel ashamed in their appearance, feeling self conscious about unclean hair and clothes and using school bathrooms to freshen the best that they can. This social isolation creates low levels of self-esteem, which makes the children lose focus on their schoolwork and may prompt anxiety throughout adolescents.
ACES, or adverse childhood experiences, is another issue for children experiencing homelessness. ACES often implicate uncertainty and constant changes in the environment, exacerbating children’s’ ability to create trust and routines. This harms children’s development, rendering them more likely to endure many mental health problems in the long run.
The next issue is substance misuse, which is self-explanatory with adolescents who experience homelessness obtaining some sort of drug or alcohol abuse disorder. This also has a long-lasting effect of undergoing homelessness on future and possibly destructive behavior. Substance misuse could be caused by being targets by drug dealers that escalate this type of exposure, or even due to the children trying to find a catastrophic outlet for their anxiety with the readily available drugs.
Children who experience homelessness struggle with sleep, often not having a proper place to rest or only having temporary accommodation. As a result, they tend to fall asleep during class time at their desks or appear physically fatigued and distracted. These children are deprived of the sleep that they need. Consequently, their cognitive control and executive functioning are at risk of being harmed, resulting in less favorable behavior.
The uncomfortable and unpredictable living conditions these children experience can also induce high anxiety levels. Anxiety within younger children can manifest as excessive introversion, causing limited socialization. Whereas children a bit older may display higher aggression, sometimes rejecting to do their homework and acting confrontationally. Anxiety may be significantly heightened within young girls come the time of puberty.
Lastly, these children experience loss of personal objects that comfort them when they are rushed into or from temporary living arrangements. In turn, these children may act aggressively and overprotective with their possessions, resulting in increased conflicts with their classmates. This circles back to the issue of social isolation, but this just means that these children need comforters to help them self-soothe, relationship building, and a source to help them sleep.
It is crucial to look out for the youth experiencing homelessness because it is something that no one should go through, especially at a young age. Ways to help include volunteering for local programs and organizations to bolster these children and families to a better living situation. Be a helping hand, financially or emotionally, to families and children in need, ultimately allowing them to live the life they deserve.