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Single-Parent Families

The Well-being Of Children Raised In Single-parent Homes

When compared to their peers from traditional two-parent homes, children raised in single-parent homes are at risk for a number of less desirable outcomes. Such outcomes include both lower academic performance and a higher incidence of behavioral problems. It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that such negative outcomes were the direct consequence of the number of parents in the home or, as has been suggested on occasion, the absence of a father figure in a child's life. Instead, children are adversely affected by circumstances that co-occur with single-parent family configurations (such as economic disadvantage, residential instability, and interparental conflict) or are the consequence of such configurations (such as disrupted parenting). Such circumstances are not uniformly present in the lives of all single-parent families. Consequently, children from different types of single-parent families are at differential risk for adverse outcomes associated with their living arrangements.

A greater percentage of single-parent families (57.4% in 1999) than two-parent families (6.3%) live below the poverty line. The percentage of single-parent families below the poverty line is highest for adolescent single mothers and lowest for widowed mothers. In addition, a higher percentage of single mothers than single fathers lives below the poverty line. Economic disadvantage is linked with lower academic achievement and increased behavioral problems among children. Fewer economic resources are also linked with residential instability, which further contributes to children's academic and behavioral difficulties. Differences in well-being for children from single-parent families versus two-parent families typically disappear when differences in economic circumstances are taken into account.

Families that attain their single-parent status through marital dissolution are disproportionately more likely to experience both residential instability and higher rates of interparental conflict (both prior and subsequent to marital disruption). Children who are exposed to interparental conflict are more likely to experience difficulties with regard to psychological and behavioral adjustment and academic achievement. Again, once levels of interparental conflict are taken into account, differences in well-being for children from single-parent families versus two-parent families are reduced.

Finally, children from all family types are at risk when they experience parenting that is inadequate in terms of warmth, control, or monitoring. Less than optimal parenting is more likely to be observed in families that are experiencing economic stress and among adolescent mothers (although a large part of this association may be explained by the greater likelihood that adolescent single mothers will experience economic disadvantage). Psychologist Mavis Hetherington has found that the parenting skills of mothers tend to diminish in the years immediately following divorce, and children who are exposed to such disruptions in parenting experience concurrent psychological, behavioral, and academic difficulties. As mothers adjust to their new single-parent status, however, their parenting improves, as does their children's well-being.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7Single-Parent Families - The Prevalence Of Single-parent Families In America, The Well-being Of Children Raised In Single-parent Homes