As the divorce rate began to rise in the 1960s and level off in the early 1980s, the face of American families underwent major reconstruction, leaving individuals and psychologists alike wondering: How are the children faring?
Well, aside from the rich ones, it seems the kids are alright.
The new research, which came out of Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, suggests that parental separation or divorce only significantly impacts the behavior of children in high-income families, not children in moderate- and low-income families.
The study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics beginning in 1979, to look at how children reacted over time to divorce, separation and other changes in family structure.
The nationally representative sample consisted of nearly 4,000 children born to the female respondents of the NLSY survey, who were aged 14 to 21 when it began in 1979. In 1986, the NLSY researchers began looking at these women’s children, biennially assessing their health, development and well-being through interviews with their mothers. These mothers were questioned about family structures, household income and the socio-emotional state of their children, which allowed the Georgetown and University of Chicago researchers to analyze that longitudinal data and draw conclusions about the children’s behavioral outcomes. Children were observed between birth and age 12, and the data was collected from 1986 until 2008.
Figuring out why children in high-income families are more vulnerable is tricky, but there are a few clues.
Negative behavioral outcomes were assessed using two categories: externalizing behaviors — things like aggression, defiance and bullying — and internalizing behaviors — things like sadness, anxiety, nervousness and low self-esteem. Again, these were all deduced from interviews with the children’s mothers.
“We divided the sample into high-, medium- and low-income families and we found, in fact, that parental separation or divorce really only impacted the children in the top income group,” Rebecca M. Ryan, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Georgetown University and one of the lead researchers of the study, told The Huffington Post. “But we did a better job of demonstrating that that’s true and a less of a good job explaining why that might be true.”
Ryan and her fellow researchers hypothesized that perhaps children of high-income families (in this case, those living 300 percent above the federal poverty line) may suffer more for two reasons. First, since fathers — who are the sole or primary breadwinners in 60 percent of families — are typically the parent that leaves the household during a divorce or separation, children may experience a more significant drop in family income. They may have to switch schools or move to a new neighborhood, which can cause more anxiety over the decline in financial resources, said Ryan.
It’s also possible that, since divorce and separation are less common among higher-income families, this change could hit a higher-income child particularly hard. These types of family structure changes are more normative among lower-income families (those living 200 percent below the federal poverty line), said Ryan, and could therefore be less trying for them. Ryan also noted that mothers in high-income households may consider divorce or separation more stressful, since there may be less social support for these types of shifts in their communities.
“That stress then trickles down to the children from the mothers, either in the way mother interacts with the child or when the child observes the mother’s stress,” said Ryan.
Stepparents can provide some much-needed stability.
Interestingly enough, when mothers across incomes brought in a stepparent, children’s behavioral outcomes improved, especially for those affected children in the high-income bracket. So while Ryan and the researchers only found negative behavioral effects of moving from a two-parent household to a one-parent household (in varying degrees depending on income, of course), they only saw positive effects when children moved into a stepparent family — which could be good news for mothers unsure of whether or not to make such a transition.
“A lot of studies have found that children who live in separated families fare poorer on various social and emotional outcomes than kids who live with their original families,” said Ryan. “Those comparisons don’t take into account the negative impact of the original divorce. If you control for that, I actually think that moving into a stepparent family can improve things for the child.”
Some reasons Ryan offered up for this positive effect were that the mother (and, in effect, the child) will be happier if she was looking for a new partner; the stepfather will presumably bring in more money to the household and offer financial security; and the child will have more overall time with caregivers now that there’s two of them, which opens the door for a potentially positive relationship with another father figure.
Ryan also posited that, for the high-income children in particular, bringing a stepparent into the family can ameliorate their behavior if they were hit harder by the divorce. Remarriage might make the children feel “more buoyed by the return to relative normalcy.”She also suggested that these higher-income moms may be partnering with men who bring more resources, like income and education level, into the household than their lower-earning counterparts.
Don’t make any decisions based on averages — every family is unique.
As for what parents should take away from her findings, Ryan said it’s just important for them to be mindful of what the potential consequences of divorce or separation could be and to keep a close eye on their children to see if interventions are needed. Focusing on positive co-parenting and keeping routines predictable for kids also help children deal with changes in family structure. Above all, Ryan explained that every family is different and has its own contexts to consider.
“I would never claim that an average effect across 4,000 kids should ever apply to a specific situation,” she said. “Parents know best what to do for themselves and their kids.”
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