Is Chaos Bad for Kids’ Mental Development?

Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign conducted a long-term study of about 300 families that looked for issues in home life that can have negative effects on kids’ mental development. Some of their conclusions were surprising. 

Things that can hinder optimum mental development in children:

  • sugary snacks
  • processed foods
  • noise and conflict
  • a disorganized home

Nutrition and cognition

Previous studies have found connections between poor nutrition and delayed mental development. But the researchers thought a quiet and well-ordered home life might provide a “buffer” for poor eating habits. Instead they found that both poor nutrition and a chaotic home life independently interfered with development of some mental and emotional skills. 

Executive function, which includes things like the ability to plan and organize information, emotional control, and impulse control, develops between the ages of 2 and 5. These abilities affect social relationships as well as thinking and behaviors. Interference with this area of mental development can have consequences for reasoning and behavior throughout life. 

What’s chaos?

Parents may feel that any household with little children can be defined as chaotic. This study, however, had a very specific definition using something called the Confusion, Hubbub, and Order Scale (CHAOS). This questionnaire asks people to agree or disagree with statements like these:

  • “It’s a real zoo in our home.”
  • “There is often a fuss going on at our home.”
  • “No matter what our family plans, it usually doesn’t seem to work out.”
  • “You can’t hear yourself think in our home.”
  • “I often get drawn into other people’s arguments at home.”

This definition of chaos includes friction and frustration, not untidiness or a relaxed attitude. A high level of conflict and a low level of routine or regulation was interpreted as a chaotic household. 

Researchers found that children in chaotic households tended to eat more sugary drinks and snacks, but also that both poor nutrition and chaotic home life correlated with poor executive function. 


This study suggests that some good health habits make a difference for kids’ mental development. If you’re looking for positive steps to take for your family, here are some things to consider:

  • Healthy snacks benefit kids’ physical and mental development. Add fruits and vegetables to your list of snacks you keep on hand, and try to cut back on sugary snacks and drinks.

Healthy Snacks for Kids

  • Routines can reduce stress for the whole family and help kids get enough sleep. If you don’t have any family routines right now, think about starting with a bedtime routine. 

Good Sleep Habits for Kids

  • Slow down a little. At this time of year, it’s easy to overschedule.  School and work plus sports, lessons, social events, play dates, volunteer work, and family events can make life feel overstimulating and chaotic. That can lead to grumpiness and snapping at one another in any family. Consider setting a limit for extra-curricular activities. It’s easier to add more activities later than to drop some once they’re underway.

If you recognize your family in the description of lifestyles that can slow kids’ mental development, you may want to choose one small change at a time to work on. Discuss issues like this with your pediatrician if you feel worried about your home life. You may need additional support.