Since the early 2000’s there has been growing interest in the phenomenon of household chaos and how it impacts on the well-being and development of children. Yet despite this interest, no review has been conducted that comprehensively brings the existing literature together. A systematic scoping review we have published in BMC Public Health aims to address this gap.

What we found

With remarkable consistency, increased chaos in a child’s home, defined as high levels of background noise (e.g. from TV), constant rushing, and environmental commotion and confusion, negatively impacted on almost every child outcome investigated, from cognitive and academic performance, to stress physiology, and socio-emotional well-being.

Chaos and parenting

So how could household chaos have such far-ranging implications for the well-being of children? An important clue lies in the relationship between chaos and parenting behaviors. We found that, yet again with remarkable consistency, greater chaos was associated with increased parent-child conflict, reduced closeness in the parent-child relationship, less supportive parenting practices, and less responsive parenting. And as research has confirmed, the quality of the parent-child relationship is intricately linked to the well-being of the child.

Slowing down childhood

Improving child well-being by slowing down the lives of children is not a new concept. Outside academia a number of groups and social movements advocate for the realignment of family time with the ‘pace of childhood’ – a pace that is much slower than the pace of the hurried, modern world children find themselves in. These approaches encourage simplification of a child’s life, through the paring back of unnecessary activities, toys, and digital media, in addition to the promotion of daily rhythms and routines known to support well-being. In short, the focus shifts away from activities that disrupt the flow of family life, and instead focuses on activities that promote parent-child communication and free play (but not computer games!), and support development of warm relationships.

Research gaps

Yet despite a push from outside academia to simplify the lives of children, and evidence from longitudinal and cross-sectional studies linking chaos with poor child outcomes, we still don’t know whether reducing household chaos will have a positive impact. We also don’t know how to reduce chaos, as no studies have attempted to do this. And importantly, it still remains to be seen whether we can go too far in the other direction, resulting in a home environment that is overly structured and controlled, to the point that it lacks warmth and the opportunity for supportive and caring parent-child relationships to develop.

Household chaos in the time of COVID-19

At the time of undertaking the review, we could not have predicted the situation we currently find ourselves in. Children around the world are spending an unprecedented amount of time at home. While we don’t know whether children living in low-chaos households will fare better, intuitively, we might expect they will. These children will likely have greater opportunities to complete their home-schooling tasks in a less distracting environment. They will also likely have more time dedicated to free, non-screen based play – the kind of play that supports their emotional well-being and development. And perhaps most importantly, there is the chance that they will have greater exposure to supportive and positive parenting practices. As such, lower household chaos in the time of COVID-19 may provide an environment more conducive to the promotion of resilience and child well-being. A unique opportunity has thus presented itself to investigate not only how low levels of chaos protect children from exposure to adversity, but also whether we can effectively reduce household chaos levels to promote better outcomes across the board for our children.