In an age when cohabitation and divorce are common, single parents concerned about the developmental health of their children may want to choose new partners slowly and deliberately, new research from The Johns Hopkins University suggests.
The reason for taking your time? The more transitions children go through in their living situation, the more likely they are to act out, Johns Hopkins sociologists Paula Fomby and Andrew Cherlin report. They also found that the effect of family upheaval on children varies by race.
In their paper, "Family Instability and Child Well-Being," published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, Fomby and Cherlin note that with each breakup, divorce, remarriage or new cohabitation, there is a period of adjustment as parents, partners, and children establish their places in a new family setting. Studying a nationally representative sample of mothers and their children, the researchers found that children who go through frequent transitions are more likely to have behavioral problems than children raised in stable two-parent families and maybe even more than those in stable single-parent families.
Looking at children's scores on a mother-reported assessment of behavior problems with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 (similar to how an IQ test is scored), the authors found that a child who experienced three transitions would have a behavior problems score about 6 points higher compared to a child who had experienced no transitions. Experiencing multiple transitions was also associated with children's more frequent delinquent behavior, including vandalism, theft and truancy.
"Children are affected by disruption and changes in family structure as well as by the type of family structures they experience," said Fomby, an associate research scientist in the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins. "To the extent that family instability has an independent effect on children's well-being, a significant reinterpretation of the effects of family structure on children's well-being may be warranted."
The authors also observed that children who experienced multiple transitions in family structure had lower average scores on tests of mathematics and reading skills. That problem was explained, however, by the mothers' own educational achievement and cognitive ability, assessed when they were teenagers or young adults.
Fomby and Cherlin, the university's Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy, analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and its mother-child supplement, the Children of NLSY, a 21-year panel study of women and their children. The children they studied were between the ages of 5 and 14 in 2000. They used a cognitive achievement test, a mother-reported scale of their children's behavior problems and, for 10- to 14-year-olds, a self-reported scale of delinquent behavior. They also counted the number of marital and cohabitational transitions a child had experienced.
Changes at home seem to have a stronger negative impact on white children than on black children, the researchers found. Fomby and Cherlin observed a consistent connection between family instability and white children's behavior problems and cognitive achievement, but they found no such link for black children. One reason for this difference could be that the black children in their study were more likely to have extended families nearby for emotional support, the researchers wrote. The restrictions of their sample set may also have affected the outcome: The researchers exclusively studied children born to women who were between 21 and 38 years old at the child's birth, and black women tend to begin having children at a younger age than white women, they said.
For both white and black children, Fomby and Cherlin found a persistent association between living in a mother-only household during the child's first four years and mother-reported behavior problems, and for white children, reading recognition.
"Family instability does appear to have a causal role in determining whether white children exhibit more behavior problems," Fomby said. "But for both white and black children, other dimensions of family structure, like being born to a single parent or living with a step-parent, also have persistent effects. Instability isn't the whole story, but looking at change tells us more about what explains children's behavioral development than what we would see by looking at a cross-section."
The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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