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Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005

The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation
Paul R. Amato

Research on the Effects of Family Structure on Children

The rise in the divorce rate during the 1960s and 1970s prompted social scientists to investigate how differing family structures affect children. Their research focus initially was on children of divorced parents, but it expanded to include out-of-wedlock children and those in other nontraditional family structures.

Parental Divorce
Early studies generally supported the assumption that children who experience parental divorce are prone to a variety of academic, behavioral, and emotional problems.1 In 1971, psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly began an influential long-term study of 60 divorced families and 131 children. According to the authors, five years after divorce, one-third of the children were adjusting well and had good relationships with both parents. Another group of children (more than one-third of the sample) were clinically depressed, were doing poorly in school, had difficulty maintaining friendships, experienced chronic problems such as sleep disturbances, and continued to hope that their parents would reconcile.2

Despite these early findings, other studies in the 1970s challenged the dominant view that divorce is uniformly bad for children. For example, Mavis Hetherington and her colleagues studied 144 preschool children, half from recently divorced maternal-custody families and half from continuously married two-parent families. During the first year of the study, the children with divorced parents exhibited more behavioral and emotional problems than did the children with continuously married parents. Two years after divorce, however, children with divorced parents no longer exhibited an elevated number of problems (although a few difficulties lingered for boys). Despite this temporary improvement, a later wave of data collection revealed that the remarriage of the custodial mother was followed by additional problems among the children, especially daughters.


Trying to make sense of this research literature can be frustrating, because the results of individual studies vary considerably: some suggest serious negative effects of divorce, others suggest modest effects, and yet others suggest no effects. Much of this inconsistency is due to variations across studies in the types of samples, the ages of the children, the outcomes examined, and the methods of analysis. To summarize general trends across such a large and varied body of research, social scientists use a technique known as meta-analysis. By calculating an effect size for each study (which reflects the difference between two groups expressed in a common metric), meta-analysis makes it possible to pool results across many studies and adjust for variations such as those noted.4

In 1991, Bruce Keith and I published the first meta-analysis dealing with the effects of divorce on children.5 Our analysis summarized the results of ninety-three studies published in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and confirmed that children with divorced parents are worse off than those with continuously married parents on measures of academic success (school grades, scores on standardized achievement tests), conduct (behavior problems, aggression), psychological well-being (depression, distress symptoms), self-esteem (positive feelings about oneself, perceptions of self-efficacy), and peer relations (number of close friends, social support from peers), on average. Moreover, children in divorced families tend to have weaker emotional bonds with mothers and fathers than do their peers in two-parent families. These results supported the conclusion that the rise in divorce had lowered the average level of child well-being.

Our meta-analysis also indicated, however, that the estimated effects of parental divorce on children's well-being are modest rather than strong. We concluded that these modest differences reflect widely varying experiences within both groups of children. Some children growing up with continuously married parents are exposed to stressful circumstances, such as poverty, serious conflict between parents, violence, inept parenting, and mental illness or substance abuse, that increase the risk of child maladjustment. Correspondingly, some children with divorced parents cope well, perhaps because their parents are able to separate amicably and engage in cooperative co-parenting following marital dissolution.

In a more recent meta-analysis, based on sixty-seven studies conducted during the 1990s, I again found that children with divorced parents, on average, scored significantly lower on various measures of wellbeing than did children with continuously married parents.6 As before, the differences between the two groups were modest rather than large. Nevertheless, the more recent meta-analyses revealed that children with divorced parents continued to have lower average levels of cognitive, social, and emotional well-being, even in a decade in which divorce had become common and widely accepted.

Other studies have shown that the differences in well-being between children with divorced and children with continuously married parents persist well into adulthood. For example, adults who experience parental divorce as a child have lower socioeconomic attainment, an increased risk of having a nonmarital birth, weaker bonds with parents, lower psychological well-being, poorer marital quality, and an elevated risk of seeing their own marriage end in divorce.7 Overall, the evidence is consistent that parental divorce during childhood is linked with a wide range of problems in adulthood.

Children Born outside Marriage
Children born outside marriage have been studied less frequently than have children of divorce. Nevertheless, like children with divorced parents, children who grow up with a single parent because they were born out of wedlock are more likely than children living with continuously married parents to experience a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems. Specifically, compared with children who grow up in stable, two-parent families, children born outside marriage reach adulthood with less education, earn less income, have lower occupational status, are more likely to be idle (that is, not employed and not in school), are more likely to have a nonmarital birth (among daughters), have more troubled marriages, experience higher rates of divorce, and report more symptoms of depression.8

A few studies have compared children of unmarried single parents and divorced single parents. Despite some variation across studies, this research generally shows that the long-term risks for most problems are comparable in these two groups. For example, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, using the National Survey of Families and Households, found that 31 percent of youth with divorced parents dropped out of high school, compared with 37 percent of youth born outside marriage (the corresponding figure for youth with continuously married parents was 13 percent). Similarly, 33 percent of daughters with divorced parents had a teen birth, compared with 37 percent of daughters born outside marriage (the corresponding figure for daughters with continuously married parents was 11 percent).9 Other studies that have compared offspring in these two groups yield similar results with respect to occupational attainment, earned income, depression, and the risk of seeing one's own marriage end in divorce.10

Although it is sometimes assumed that children born to unwed mothers have little contact with their fathers, about 40 percent of unmarried mothers are living with the child's father at the time of birth.11 If one-third of all children are born to unmarried parents, and if 40 percent of these parents are cohabiting, then about one out of every eight infants lives with two biological but unmarried parents. Structurally, these households are similar to households with two married parents. And young children are unlikely to be aware of their parents' marital status. Nevertheless, cohabiting parents tend to be more disadvantaged than married parents. They have less education, earn less income, report poorer relationship quality, and experience more mental health problems.12 These considerations suggest that children living with cohabiting biological parents may be worse off, in some respects, than children living with two married biological parents.

Consistent with this assumption, Susan L. Brown found that children living with cohabiting biological parents, compared with children living with continuously married parents, had more behavioral problems, more emotional problems, and lower levels of school engagement (that is, caring about school and doing homework).13 Parents' education, income, psychological well-being, and parenting stress explained most-—but not all-—of these differences. In other words, unmarried cohabiting parents, compared with married parents, had fewer years of education, earned less income, had lower levels of psychological well-being, and reported more stress in parenting. These factors, in turn, partly accounted for the elevated number of problems among their children.

The risk of relationship dissolution also is substantially higher for cohabiting couples with children than for married couples with children.14 For example, the Fragile Families Study indicates that about one-fourth of cohabiting biological parents are no longer living together one year after the child's birth.15 Another study of first births found that 31 percent of cohabiting couples had broken up after five years, as against 16 percent of married couples.16 Growing up with two continuously cohabiting biological parents is rare. Using the 1999 National Survey of American Families, Brown found that only 1.5 percent of all children lived with two cohabiting parents at the time of the survey.17 Similarly, an analysis of the 1995 Adolescent Health Study (Add Health) revealed that less than one-half of 1 percent of adolescents aged sixteen to eighteen had spent their entire childhoods living with two continuously cohabiting biological parents.18

Unresolved questions remain about children born to cohabiting parents who later marry. If cohabiting parents marry after the birth of a child, is the child at any greater risk than if the parents marry before having the child? Correspondingly, do children benefit when their cohabiting parents get married? To the extent that marriage increases union stability and binds fathers more strongly to their children, marriage among cohabiting parents may improve children's long-term well-being. Few studies, however, have addressed this issue.

Death of a Parent
Some children live with a single parent not because of divorce or because they were born outside marriage but because their other parent has died. Studies that compare children who experienced the death of a parent with children separated from a parent for other reasons yield mixed results. The Amato and Keith meta-analysis found that children who experienced a parent's death scored lower on several forms of well-being than did children living with continuously married parents. Children who experienced a parent's death, however, scored significantly higher on several measures of well-being than did children with divorced parents.19 McLanahan and Sandefur found that children with a deceased parent were no more likely than children with continuously married parents to drop out of high school. Daughters with a deceased parent, however, were more likely than teenagers living with both parents to have a nonmarital birth.20 Another study found that although adults whose parents divorced or never married during their childhood had lower levels of socioeconomic attainment than did adults who grew up with continuously married parents, adults who experienced the death of a parent as a child did not differ from those with two continuously married parents.21 In contrast, Amato found that all causes of separation from a parent during childhood, including parental death, were linked with increased symptoms of depression in adulthood.22 Although the research findings are mixed, these studies suggest that experiencing the death of a parent during childhood puts children at risk for a number of problems, but not as much as does divorce or out-of-wedlock birth.

Discordant Two-Parent Families
Most studies in this literature have compared children living with a single parent with a broad group of children living with continuously married parents. Some two-parent families, however, function better than others. Marriages marked by chronic, overt conflict and hostility are “intact” structurally but are not necessarily good environments in which to raise children. Some early studies compared children living with divorced parents and children living with two married but discordant parents. In general, these studies found that children in high-conflict households experience many of the same problems as do children with divorced parents. In fact, some studies show that children with discordant married parents are worse off than children with divorced parents.23

A more recent generation of long-term studies has shown that the effects of divorce vary with the degree of marital discord that precedes divorce. When parents exhibit chronic and overt conflict, children appear to be better off, in the long run, if their parents split up rather than stay together. But when parents exhibit relatively little overt conflict, children appear to be better off if their parents stay together. In other words, children are particularly at risk when low-conflict marriages end in divorce.24 In a twenty-year study, Alan Booth and I found that the majority of marriages that ended in divorce fell into the low-conflict group. Spouses in these marriages did not fight frequently or express hostility toward their partners. Instead, they felt emotionally estranged from their spouses, and many ended their marriages to seek greater happiness with new partners. Although many parents saw this transition as positive, their children often viewed it as unexpected, inexplicable, and unwelcome. Children and parents, it is clear, often have different interpretations of family transitions.25

Although rates of remarriage have declined in recent years, most divorced parents eventually remarry. Similarly, many women who have had a nonmarital birth eventually marry men who are not the fathers of their children. Adding a stepfather to the household usually improves children's standard of living. Moreover, in a stepfamily, two adults are available to monitor children's behavior, provide supervision, and assist children with everyday problems. For these reasons, one might assume that children generally are better off in stepfamilies than in single-parent households. Studies consistently indicate, however, that children in stepfamilies exhibit more problems than do children with continuously married parents and about the same number of problems as do children with single parents.26 In other words, the marriage of a single parent (to someone other than the child's biological parent) does not appear to improve the functioning of most children.

Although the great majority of parents view the formation of a stepfamily positively, children tend to be less enthusiastic. Stepfamily formation is stressful for many children because it often involves moving (generally to a different neighborhood or town), adapting to new people in the household, and learning new rules and routines. Moreover, early relationships between stepparents and stepchildren are often tense. Children, especially adolescents, become accustomed to a substantial degree of autonomy in single-parent households. They may resent the monitoring and supervision by stepparents and react with hostility when stepparents attempt to exert authority. Some children experience loyalty conflicts and fear that becoming emotionally close to a stepparent implies betraying the nonresident biological parent. Some become jealous because they must share parental time and attention with the stepparent. And for some children, remarriage ends any lingering hopes that the two biological parents will one day reconcile.27 Finally, stepchildren are overrepresented in official reports of child abuse.28 Of course, the great majority of stepparents are not abusive. Moreover, survey data have not supported the notion that children in stepfamilies are more likely to be abused than are children in two-parent families. 29 Nevertheless, even a slight trend in this direction would represent an additional risk for children in stepfamilies.

Although relationships in many stepfamilies are tense, stepparents are still able to make positive contributions to their stepchildren's lives. If stepfamilies survive the early “crisis” stage, then close and supportive relationships between stepparents and stepchildren often develop. Research suggests that these relationships can serve as important resources for children's development and emotional well-being.30

The increase in nonmarital cohabitation has focused attention on the distinction between married-couple stepfamilies and cohabiting-couple “stepfamilies.” Christine Buchanan, Eleanor Maccoby, and Sanford Dornbusch found that adolescents had fewer emotional and behavior problems following divorce if their mothers remarried than if they cohabited with a partner.31 Similarly, two studies of African American families found that children were better off in certain respects if they lived with stepfathers than with their mother's cohabiting partners.32 In contrast, Susan Brown found no significant differences between children in married and cohabiting stepfamilies.33 Although these data suggest that children may be better off if single mothers marry their partners rather than cohabit, the small number of studies on this topic makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

Variations by Gender of Child
Several early influential studies found that boys in divorced families had more adjustment problems than did girls.34 Given that boys usually live with their mothers following family disruption, the loss of contact with the same-gender parent could account for such a difference. In addition boys, compared with girls, may be exposed to more conflict, receive less support from parents and others (because they are believed to be tougher), and be picked on more by custodial mothers (because sons may resemble their fathers). Subsequent studies, however, have failed to find consistent gender differences in children's reactions to divorce.

The meta-analyses on children of divorce provide the most reliable evidence on this topic. The Amato and Keith meta-analysis of studies conducted before the 1990s revealed one significant gender difference: the estimated negative effect of divorce on social adjustment was stronger for boys than girls. In other areas, however, such as academic achievement, conduct, and psychological adjustment, no differences between boys and girls were apparent.35 In my meta-analysis of studies conducted in the 1990s, the estimated effect of divorce on children's conduct problems was stronger for boys than for girls, although no other gender differences were apparent.36 Why the earlier studies suggest a gender difference in social adjustment and the more recent studies suggest a gender difference in conduct problems is unclear. Nevertheless, taken together, these meta-analyses provide some limited support for the notion that boys are more susceptible than girls to the detrimental consequences of divorce.

Variations by Race of Child
Compared with whites, African Americans have a higher rate of marital disruption and a substantially higher rate of nonmarital births. Because relatively little research has focused on this topic, however, it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about racial differences in children's well-being in single-parent households. Some research suggests that the academic deficits associated with living with a single mother are less pronounced for black than for white children.37 One study found that growing up in a single-parent family predicted lower socioeconomic attainment among white women, white men, and black women, but not among black men.38 McLanahan and Sandefur found that white offspring from single-parent families were more likely to drop out of high school than were African American offspring from single-parent families.39 African American children may thus adjust better than white children to life in single- parent families, although the explanation for this difference is not clear. Other studies, however, have found few racial differences in the estimated effects of growing up with a single parent on long-term outcomes.40

Some studies suggest that stepfathers play a particularly beneficial role in African American families. One study found that in African American families (but not European American families), children who lived with stepfathers were less likely to drop out of high school or (among daughters) have a nonmarital birth.41 Similarly, a study of African Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods found that girls living with their mothers and stepfathers were less likely than girls living with single mothers to become sexually active or pregnant. Interestingly, the protective effect of a stepfather held only when mothers were married and not when they were cohabiting.42 Another study yielded comparable results: among African Americans, adolescents living with stepfathers were better off in many respects than were adolescents living with single mothers, but adolescents living with cohabiting parents were worse off than those living with single mothers.43 The reasons for these racial differences are not clear, and future research is required to understand how interpersonal dynamics differ in white and African American stepfamilies.