Education and Human Sciences, College of (CEHS)


First Advisor

Julia Torquati

Date of this Version



Matthews, A. (2021). Keeping the child in mind: A mixed methods study of reflections on parenting among families in shelter [PhD dissertation]. University of Nebraska-Lincoln


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Human Sciences (Child, Youth and Family Studies), Under the Supervision of Professor Julia C. Torquati. Lincoln, Nebraska: May 2021

Copyright © 2021 Ann M. Matthews


Homelessness among families is a growing problem across the United States (Beard, 2020). Homelessness is associated with stressful and impoverished caregiving environments that contribute to problematic parent-child relationships and increase children’s risks for poor health and academic outcomes (e.g., Perlman et al., 2012).

Responsive caregiving may protect children from adverse outcomes and foster resilience during periods of homelessness (Labella et al., 2019; Miliotis et al., 1999; Perlman et al., 2012). A parent’s capacity to understand their own and their child’s behavior as a function of internal mental states supports such responsive caregiving (e.g., Fonagy & Target, 1997; Slade, 2005) and could be key in helping children build resilience.

The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of how parents reflected on their parenting and children while they lived in a homeless shelter and to explore variation in these reflections. Each of the 16 parents who participated completed an interview about their experiences of shelter, and the Protective Factors Survey (PFS) about their family’s strengths across five protective factors.

Parents spent 45% of their interview time discussing their parenting and perceptions of children’s experiences of homelessness and broader experiences. This discussion included reflections about parenting and children. There were six themes that emerged from parents’ talk that described the challenges of parenting in shelter and that explained how parents conceptualized their parenting decisions in light of their understandings of children.

Some parents spent up to 39% of their interview time reflecting on their parenting and children whereas others spent 0%. Differences in the frequency and duration of parents’ reflections were meaningful and related to responses on the PFS. Importantly, the interview data provided a context for interpreting scores on the PFS. Without this context, parents’ responses could be misleading, guiding providers to address issues other than the parent-child relationship. Missed opportunities to intervene on behalf of children’s wellbeing could reduce their resilience. Thus, findings from this study underscore the importance of shelter staff asking parents questions about their parenting and children, engaging in conversations about how to build protective factors in families, and creating policies and practices in shelter that support parenting and child development.

Advisor: Julia C. Torquati