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
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