Children living and working on the street are a dynamic and mobile population as their needs and circumstances change regularly due to varied internal and external influences. Often groups of children within this population remain invisible, such as girls or children with disabilities. Such children are already exposed to risk factors that may make them more vulnerable to violence, substance use, and mental health issues. To cope with the realities of living on the streets such as trauma, illness, hunger, stigmatization, and discrimination, some children resort to substance use as a means of escaping the pain of finding a way to stay safe. Substance use at a young age, when children are still physically and mentally developing can cause long-term problems in adulthood.
The United Nations (1985) defines children living and working on the street as any girl or boy for whom the street has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, who are inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults. To further provide a classification which is used by researchers worldwide UNICEF (1986) gives three categories namely: Children at risk (poor working children of street families, living at home but earning money on the street for their families), Children on the Street (These children spend a lot of their time on the street but have some family support and live at home on regular basis) and Children of the Street (They live and work on the street. They have no or very little family contact or support).
According to Maslow’s theory, physiological needs are essential basic needs that if they are not satisfied regularly, dominate all other needs. For example, anyone who is always hungry due to the lack of food will not be interested in satisfying higher ranking needs such as safety needs, needs for love and affiliation, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It may be quite difficult for children living and working on the street to meet their daily needs due to the challenging conditions that contribute to them being potentially deprived of a support system to have a nurturing and protected environment to develop at a certain pace. As an outcome, their process of human development may be affected. The reality is that anything that limits our access to these needs could lead to conditions such as trauma which could manifest itself in adult life.
Research suggests that individual-level characteristics such as biological and genetic predispositions, combined with the personality and temperamental traits, potentially poor cognitive and emotional functioning, and stress may interact with identified risk factors such as poverty, socio-economic inequality, family dysfunction, negative peer interactions, and other circumstances that may impact the child. These risk factors may then impact adolescent development and contribute to the early initiation of substance use.
The etiological model of substance use states that intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence the complex behavioural pathways of children and adolescents. Involvement of each of these factors has implications for the ways in which children’s brains develop and function which, in turn, determines their ability to make sound decisions, problem solves, inhibit impulses, accurately perceive and process emotion, gauge consequences of their actions and ultimately self-regulate behaviour and emotions.
The factors that influence substance use behaviors for an individual are unique and vary based on the number of risk factors present and protective factors (e.g., nurturing environment, strong coping skills) that are absent which ultimately contribute to susceptibility to engage in risky behaviours. Researchers are linking the early onset of such risky behaviour to psycho-social experiences and brain development.
One of the contributing factors may be sadness or stress which may contribute to the initiation of substance use, in the context of an impoverished, high-risk environment such as living and working on the street. Stress may impede growth, leads to deregulated physiological responses to stressful situations, increase risk for psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress disorders), and compromise the development of self-regulatory skills, which is one of the key vulnerability factors potentially contributing to risky behaviours such as substance use.
The social and emotional regulation skills children need to resist substance use and other problem behaviours are learned and developed very early in life. Children who live and work on the street may not have grown up in settings where they were able to learn these skills at an early age and may be less likely to have a positive adult role model while living and working on the street. In fact, they may be exposed to homelessness, poverty, abuse, child labour, etc. Such repeated exposure to stressors impacts their development of social, behavioural, cognitive, and emotional skills. Stress can also impair learning, memory, decision-making, and other functions that normally support self-regulation of behaviour.
It is imperative that evidence-based practices focus on providing social-emotional support, engaging children in education that promotes skill development, and creating safe spaces where they can learn and grow from positive adult role models.
Protecting children and preventing negative experiences implies taking a holistic approach that understands children’s relationships as interdependent and interconnected, and therefore recognizes that rights can be violated – but also defended – by a range of duty bearers within the family, the community, and wider society, including the international community.
Prevention policies should strengthen protective factors for such target groups and reduce/minimise their exposure to risk factors to reduce the engagement in risky health behaviours such as substance use. The earlier the intervention, the more likely we can increase resiliency, and reduce exposure to the potential long-term adverse effects of the above etiological conditions. Such children require nurturing and targeted interventions which include ensuring a safe environment, quality education, access to quality health and care, effective parental interactions or interactions with other adult role models, and positive skills development to reach their highest potential.
They are no different than other children and often have additional burdens and challenges, such as protecting themselves and taking care of other family members or peers. Please treat them with respect and recognize that these children not only have significant knowledge and experiences to contribute to the community but they are not their circumstances and they have the potential to achieve great success.
1 UNODC, An introduction to the etiology of drug use and substance abuse
2 Alem & Laha, 2016, Livelihood of Street Children and the Role of Social Intervention: Insights from Literature Using Meta-Analysis, Child Development Research, Article ID 3582101
3 Muhammad Nasir Aliya Khalid, Aisha Shoukat, Maslow Theory of Human Development and Emergence of Street Children Phenomenon in Pakistan, Pakistan Vision Vol. 15 No.2
4 Street children are some of the most vulnerable children on the planet, Consortium for street children, Retrieved from: https://www.streetchildren.org/about-street-children/
5 Jones & Battjes, Etiology of Drug abuse: Implication for prevention, National Institute of Drug Abuse, NIDA Research Monograph 56, A RAUS review report