Street Children and Psychology Research Paper

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The United Nations defined street children as ‘any boy or girl … for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood; and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults’ (quoted in Lusk 1992 p. 294). The definition of street children plays a pivotal role in research and may be a source of disagreement about the results of studies (Koller and Hutz 1996). Children and adolescents who look like drifters (wear shabby, dirty clothing, beg for food or money, sell small objects, work, or wander without a purpose on the streets) can be found in large cities all over the world. The appearance of abandonment singles them out as belonging to the same group. However, their life histories, family characteristics, street life experiences, and prognoses are very different (Dallape 1996). Some researchers define street children based on characteristics such as sleeping location, family ties, school attendance, leisure, survival activities, occupation on the street environment, etc. Such definitions can lead to broad categorizations as: children of the streets or children in the streets (e.g., Barker and Knaul 1991, Campos et al. 1994, Forster et al. 1992).

Children of the streets would be those who actually live on the street, all day and at night, who do not attend school, and do not have stable family ties. They fulfill their needs and are socialized on the streets. In contrast, children in the streets would be those who live with their families, may attend school, but spend all or part of their days on the streets, trying to earn money for themselves or their families (Hutz and Koller 1999). The relationship with the family has been considered as a key feature of the definition of street children. Felsman (1985) identified three groups of street children in Colombia: (a) orphaned or abandoned children, (b) runaways, and (c) children with family ties. Leisure and occupation on the streets were added to family ties in Martins’ work (1996) to identify three different groups of street children in Brazil. He found a group of children with stable family ties who worked on the streets and went home every night. These children played in their neighborhood or on the streets where they worked and many attended school. A second group had unstable family ties. Although they lived on the streets, these children knew their families and, occasionally, went home to visit or even to stay for a while. Finally, there was a group of children who were on their own on the streets and who had lost all contact with their family.

Nevertheless, it is difficult and it may even be misleading, to define a child as belonging to a specific category. Hutz and Koller (1999) claimed that in their research they rarely found children who had completely lost contact with their family. They also identified many children who lived at home and worked on the streets, but occasionally slept on the street, and children who periodically left home and lived on the streets for weeks or months, and then went back home. The variability within these groups regarding the frequency of family contact, sleeping location, occupation on the streets, the destination for the money they earn, school attendance, and several other variables (including physical and sexual abuse, sexual activity, etc.) may be so large that the distinction between the of the street group and the in the street group may be meaningless or even misleading for research or intervention purposes. These authors suggested that it would be more appropriate to categorize street children as a function of the risks to which they are exposed (e.g., contact with gangs, use of drugs, dropping out of school, lack of proper parental guidance, prostitution, etc.) and the protective factors available to them (e.g., school attendance, supportive social networks, contact with caring adults, etc.). Researchers could then determine how vulnerable children are to developmental risk and what appropriate actions could be taken in each specific case.

1. Developmental Implications

Children living on the streets are still children undergoing development, despite their life conditions. They experience risks and challenges that, at the same time, may jeopardize their development and promote the acquisition of strategies for dealing with life on the streets. There is some evidence that economical pressures and emotional disturbances in the family expose children to larger risks than do the conditions of the street (Hecht 1998, Hutz and Koller 1997, Matchinda 1999). Street children often face larger risks than children in general because they are exposed to negative physical, social, and emotional factors at home and still have to deal with the challenges of life on the streets. On the other hand, there is evidence that the conditions of life on the streets lead to the development of coping strategies that are adaptive and that may help to strengthen their cognitive and social skills.

2. Social Development

Street children are usually targets of social rejection and discrimination. They have to develop their social identity and sense of belonging to a society that views them either as victims, who deserve pitying, or as criminals who must be taken off the streets and locked in jail. On the one hand, they are seen as victims, because they do not have shelter, clothes, food, or adult protection, have to work on the streets instead of going to school, are sexually exploited, and so on. On the other hand, they are perceived also as transgressors because they often use drugs, commit robbery, make noise, and are grouped in threatening gangs. The adult environment is usually very hostile to street children. The police aggress them often, causing physical harm and humiliation. They are also harassed by street adults and gangs, which fight for space and better survival conditions.

An effective strategy to survive and develop in such a hostile environment is to belong to a group on the streets. Therefore, street children will often join gangs and develop different kinds of peer relationships that leads to the development of emotional groups (appropriate to spend the night and to have fun together) and business groups (organized to dodge street life risks and fulfill their survival needs). Another strategy consists of going to social institutions for food and shelter. However, such institutions often fail to help them effectively, because they aim at taking the children off the streets, whereas the children seek them, because they perceive the institutions as part of street life, and not as a way out of it (Hecht 1998).

3. Emotional Development

Aptekar (1989, 1996) stated that street children are mentally healthier than their siblings who stayed at home. Koller and Hutz (1996) observed that these children have the ability to reorganize their lives on the streets, in spite of their risky conditions and their life histories. Most of them left home because their parents failed to provide a safe, nurturing, and affective environment. Many children also report sexual or physical abuse, drug use at home, and economic exploitation as reasons for leaving home (Raffaelli et al. 1995).

Some evidence presented by DeSouza and collaborators (DeSouza et al. 1995) indicated that street children were not in greater psychological distress than children of a low social economic status who lived with their families. Koller et al. (1996) investigated subjective wellbeing of street children and of children who lived in deep poverty and their findings also did not show significant differences between these groups.

4. Physical Development

Life on the streets represents a constant source of risk to children and adolescents. Their safety and survival demand energy and coping strategies to confront the daily risks. Conflicts between gangs, police harassment, and adult street dwellers physical abuse are some examples of daily violence that street children have to deal with successfully to stay safe. Cold weather, lack of food and shelter, traffic accidents, untreated injuries and illnesses, exposure to drugs and unprotected sexual activities are also important risks to their health and physical integrity (Donald and Swart-Kruger 1994, Hecht 1998).

Street children must develop adaptive strategies to survive and stay safe in spite of those risks. As previously mentioned, they form groups (emotional and business groups) that protect them from street violence and help them to survive. Also, often they find shelter and food in institutions that have rules that must be obeyed. They learn to cope with such rules, even when they do not agree with them, but their behavior becomes opportunistic and often ingenious (Donald and Swart-Kruger 1994).

5. Cognitive Development

Most street children, even those who go to school, are illiterate and have negative school experiences. Their attention span, memory, and cognitive development in general may be affected by malnutrition, drug use and intoxication, untreated illnesses, and accidental injuries. Often, they have difficulty adapting to the formal school system because it requires discipline, attention to specific tasks and schedules, planning ahead, and other routines with which they cannot deal effectively. Language, critical thinking, and intelligence also develop more slowly and may present significant deficits because street children interact mostly with their peers and have very little contact with adults. In fact, some researchers have noted that street children find it rewarding to talk to adults who will listen and speak with them in a friendly manner (Hutz and Koller 1999). Middle-class children, as a rule, are exposed daily to caring adults who talk to them, tell them stories, listen to their tales, and spend time interacting with them. Street children do not have this experience.

Spatial skills and very well developed visual and auditory discrimination, for example, are required to detect, avoid, and escape street risks. Carraher et al. (1985) noted that street children who worked at the market were very capable of dealing with money and doing sophisticated calculations to figure out the price or value of products (although they failed when presented with standard school math problems). Aptekar (1989) also referred to what he calls street knowledge as an important skill for social interaction.

6. Conclusion

Children living on the streets are a social problem in many countries, a problem that has to be fought by all means available. To fight this social ill requires that individuals and groups in society take the social and political responsibility to develop effective prevention and intervention projects. Children on the streets are vulnerable to risks but they manage to develop ‘coping strategies’ that often make them resilient (Hutz et al. 1996). They behave as children when they play or interact with peers on the streets. But, they must also act as adults when they have to provide for their subsistence and safety. In spite of their circumstances, street children are still developing persons that require appropriate health care, education, a nurturing home, safety, and human rights in order to grow with dignity and to become adjusted and productive citizens.


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