New Study Looks at the Effects of Real Modern Families on Children

Modern families are quite different from the families in which our grandparents were raised. Unlike the generations before us, single-parent households and blended families make a large percentage of the population. Families consist of fathers, mothers, mothers and fathers, same-sex parents, and extended families all living in one home. Traditional two-parent families with no history of divorce or separation are quickly becoming the minority rather than the majority. Psychologists have long suggested that divorce and single-parent households impact a child’s mental health and development. Research has shown that the disruption that occurs when a child loses a parent to divorce or separation does have an impact on the child’s well-being and future behavior. But how it affects children from different family structures and at various ages has not been examined thoroughly.

To get a better idea of the impact this type of change has on children of different ages, Rebecca M. Ryan of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., recently led a study that involved 3,492 children. She studied the effect of divorce or separation on young children and older children and also looked at how remarriage and integration into a blended family affected the children’s behaviors throughout their early and mid-adolescent years.

Ryan found that contrary to what many public policy makers believe, children are most affected by changes to their family structure in the first 5 years of life. The study showed that children of married parents demonstrated the most dramatic behavioral changes later in life if their parents divorced prior to their first year of school. Although children of unwed parents were also affected during this time period, the impact was much less extreme. This could be due to the fact that unwed parents have more relationship volatility than wed parents and thus, the change from a dual- to a single-parent household is not as dramatic. Interestingly, Ryan also discovered that children who are quickly integrated into a new blended family have fewer behavior problems than those who are not. In fact, children of blended families actually receive protective benefits that seem to help them avoid some of the negative behaviors exhibited by children who remain in single-parent households. This study reveals new information that is in contradiction to many currently held beliefs about the impact of divorce and separation. Ryan added, “Most significantly, our findings reveal the importance of considering family context when generalizing about the impacts of family instability.”

Ryan, R. M., Claessens, A. (2012). Associations between family structure changes and children’s behavior problems: The moderating effects of timing and marital birth. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029397

Related articles:
Dealing with Divorce
The Importance of Giving Your Child Positive Coping Skills in Life
How to Become a Good Stepparent

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Beth


    August 21st, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    The sad thing is that not only do these children not get the love from both of their parents but can go on to have problems due to the same.Their relationships in their adult life are then affected and that an start off a chain reaction affecting just so many people!

  • Kyle


    August 22nd, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    No matter the situation it is always for the best to try anything that you can to maintain a semblance of family stability for children through all parts of their lives. It is not realistic to think that parents won’t argue with each other- that’s human nature. But to be able to show children that grown ups can diagree and make up and still hold the family together, that goes a long way toward teaching them how to compromise in their own future relationships and just how important staying a whole family is to you. I think that when they are grwoing up and they see you amking an effort about something, then this in turn will help them to see that it should be important to them too.

  • jen


    August 22nd, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    there is so much talk about how children cannot cope with this ‘different’ family environment.different with respect to what?while you may consider a set a straight parents with no divorce or separation as ‘normal’ that may not quite be so normal to others!

    whatever the family environment is,if the parenting is good and the child is brought up with healthy practices and parenting then that is what we should all be aiming at isn’t it?!

    i live with my female partner and we want to adopt in the future.we are sure we can take care of the child and be good parents.does that mean the child will have problems just because there is two mothers instead of a mother or father?i don’t think so!

  • Brandon


    August 22nd, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    There are so many versions these days of what a family is that it’s really hard to give that term a formal definition anymore.

    What I believe though is that a family is what makes you feel safe, feel loved, supported and comforted. If this is a little different from that Norman Rockwell view of life that many of us tend to hold onto, then so what? What we have to remember is that what may work for us may not wotk for others, and really that’s okay. As long as there is a group of family who love you no matter what and are there for you through thick and then, who cares if what you have is different from anyone else?

  • The30PlusMom


    August 22nd, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    Well, since I have some hands on experience with this subject here’s my 2 cents…

    If children are living in a dysfunctional home then by all means the children will be better off with 1 stable parent then 2 dysfuntional parents. Children need to be loved and nutured. Whether that comes from a mother and father or two mothers or two fathers is irrelevant. All families are unique these days and all families have obstacles. How you handle those obstacles will determine whether your children become well adjusted adults.

    As for blended families, I have 3 children of my own and 3 step children. Both sets are loved like our own and loved under two seperate roofs. Their lives are consistent and balanced. They know that at any given time they have 4 adults that are unconditionally available to them should they need it. I can only speak for myself when I say, there is not a doubt in my mind that my 3 children are in a much better place with me married to my current husband versus my ex. It’s not always perfect but we work as a team to make it work.

    Nobody goes into starting a family wishing for divorce but unfortunately sometimes it happens. Again, how you handle it makes all the difference in the world.

  • BRYson


    August 22nd, 2012 at 4:15 PM

    how about kids being raised by two moms or dads?
    how is living with open homosexuality affecting those kids?
    that’s a modern family alternative that’s not mentioned here

  • Logan


    August 23rd, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    It’s pretty obvious that today’s family may, on the outside, look a little different from that stylized and idealized family that many of us have grown up wanting to emulate. That, howveer, in no way takes away the fact that a family is still a family, regardless of what it looks like on the surface. They are still the crux of what gives us so much love growing up and support when we need it the most. They are the people who pull us up, cheer us on, encourage us to do our best, and it doesn’t matter what kind of configuration that this comes in. It is still important and at the ehart of our society. Just because it doesn’t look like the Ozzie and Harriett of yesteryear does not make it any less important or any less relevant.

  • rick s

    rick s

    August 24th, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    It is about time that we stopped placing these unrealistic expectations about what is alright to be considered a family and what is not. What makes you think that what I have is any less than what you have? So I’m not married- does that make me love my kid any less? So she already has a kid- just because he’s not mine does that make you think that I do not also have the ability to love and take care of this child as if he was? I really think that a lot of times we expect too little from people, and if that is where you choose to set the bar, low, that’s what you will get. So we need to change the way that we think about that and be a little more gracious and accepting of the fact that my family may not look or act like your, but that in no way makes it less than what it is.

  • yvette


    July 20th, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    i need the name of the author who wrote this specifically

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