In this blog, Elisavet (2nd year PhD Student) and Celestine (1st year PhD Student & Research Assistant) interviewed Dr Bonamy Oliver, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology, to find out more about the home environment.
1) How would you conceptualise the home environment in a few words? And what are the challenges in defining it?
I think there are three main challenges when conceptualising and defining the “home-environment”.
a) The first is that there are so many key features of the home environment that it’s difficult to summarise. These include not only physical things, like how safe it is, how many books or people there are, but also, less “tangible” aspects, such as how calm or unhurried the atmosphere is, how much emotional warmth there is in the home, whether there are a lot of arguments going on etc.
b) The second challenge is that people in the same home may have different experiences. This might be because of exposure to different circumstances (e.g., an older child who is awake when their parents are arguing versus a younger child who is not), or differential treatment (e.g., a parent may shout at one child and not another). Individual perspectives are also crucial – that is, people in the same home can perceive the same environment very differently (e.g., one person’s chaos is another person’s comfort).
c) The third challenge is that we are not passive recipients of our environments, rather, we are active players (e.g., we may be the ones to argue or cause the disorganisation!). This means that the home environment is not a static aspect of our lives that is “out there” influencing us – we influence it ourselves as well!
2) Why is the home environment important to study in developmental research?
For most children, during their early years, the home contains the core of their experiences and relationships with others. For example, parents and siblings (if they have them) are young children’s main socialisation partners, and most of their time is spent at home. Even once children start to spend more time outside of the home, (e.g. at school) at its best, home can be a place of learning, play, solace, discussion, advice, affirmation and belonging. For other children, the home is none of those things.
Understanding the aetiology and effects of children’s different experiences at home is crucial for understanding developmental outcomes. There is a lot more to know about the influence of the home environment on children’s development, particularly in the context of genetic understanding.
However, I think of the home environment as our day-to-day, our wellbeing in the moment. As such, it’s incredibly important.
3) How does the influence of the home environment change across development?
As we mature, we gain more diverse influences, relationships and places of experience. Behavioural-genetic studies suggest that genetic influences increase over time for almost all psychological traits. But remember that this is partly because we increasingly select, shape, change and seek out our environmental influences due to our genetically-influenced traits. This is called gene-environment correlation and includes the fact we increasingly influence who we live with and what our own home is like. As I said earlier, the way I see it is that our day-to-day, our wellbeing in the moment remains at home, it’s just that our influence on what our home is, changes as we mature.
4) What is the best way to measure the home environment?
We need to consider multiple methods, including both observation and self-report measures, provided by different people for the various aspects of the home environment. It is rare to achieve this in research, especially in large studies. For example, parents and children can report on the home environment very differently – even agreement between parent- and child-reports of the parent-child relationship is often pretty low! Studies suggest that child-reports can sometimes align better to what researchers observe than do parent reports, which might be surprising to some people. It’s not only parents and children that differ though. Partners in the home can have very different perspectives as well, and so can children brought up in the same home. All of these perspectives and experiences are likely to be crucial if we want to capture a full picture of the home environment, and our subjective experiences are really important in terms of whether and how they influence our outcomes.
5) How could the home environment be utilised to improve mental health outcomes?
There are lots of evidence-based interventions out there that aim to improve mental health. Many of these work to change aspects of the home environment, regardless of whether they aim to improve child, adolescent or adult mental health. By far the most common best-practice interventions are those that include ways to improve the relationships in the home, including those between parents and children, siblings, or interparental relationships. Research suggests that the emotional climate in the home can relate to the onset, maintenance and relapse of mental-health problems. I think this comes back to the idea of the home as our day-to-day. There is much to be said for a calm, non-conflictual and loving atmosphere for our wellbeing.
Check out Bonny’s previous EDIT Lab blogs on the topic of parenting and the home environment: