The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Single and Remarried Parents in the Dark

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Social scientists have known for decades that teens in broken homes suffer from poorer emotional and behavioral health than do peers in intact families. But a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that their physical health is also distinctively poor—and that many of their single parents simply do not realize how bad things are for them.

To assess the impact of family structure on adolescents’ well-being, the Wisconsin scholars parse data regularly collected from 1968 to 2002 for a nationally representative sample of 4,800 American families. In the judgment of the researchers, this particular data set merits attention for two reasons: First, it gives detailed information about how family structure affects physical health. Second, it includes survey data on behavioral, emotional, and physical health collected from both parents and their adolescent children.

The overall pattern that the researchers limn in the data is hardly surprising: “adolescents in two-biological-parent families tend to fare better than those in other family types.”  Looking at simple bivariate associations in the raw data, the researchers conclude that adolescents in all other family types “exhibit more externalizing behavior problems than do youth in two-biological-parent families.”  Furthermore, the researchers find that “adolescents in single-mother families and those in families with both a biological-mother and a social-father report more antisocial behaviors than do youth in two-biological-parent families.”

The same pattern persists in the bivariate associations in the raw data for emotional well-being. The researchers thus report that the incidence of “internalizing behavior problems is higher among adolescents in all other family types than among those in two-biological-parent families.”  Likewise, the data indicate that “adolescent-reported self-concept is lower among youth in single-mother families and in families with the biological father but not biological mother present than among those in two-biological-parent families.”  Summarizing the simple bivariate relationships manifest in the raw behavioral and emotional data, the Wisconsin scholars are succinct: “the raw data suggest that adolescents in other family types fare worse than those in two-biological-parent families on most outcomes.”

When the focus shifts from behavioral and emotional health to physical health, the basic pattern in the bivariate associations in the raw data remains the same: “adolescents in two-biological-parent families are estimated to be in better overall health than are those in all other family types.”

Given what the data show for behavioral, emotional, and physical health, it is entirely predictable that the researchers adduce “consistent evidence of adverse outcomes for adolescents transitioning from a two-biological-parent family to a single-parent family.”  The data provide more equivocal evidence as to the results of other types of family-structure transitions, such as the transition from a single-parent family to a stepfamily.

After duly considering the simple bivariate associations in the raw data, the researchers move to a basic statistical model focused on various family-structure types (including social as well as biological parents) and then to a more sophisticated model that takes into account background variables such as ethnicity and household income. This more sophisticated model yields results that are “highly consistent” with those for the family-structure model. The researchers reason that “this consistency suggests that the antecedent characteristics explain few of the differences in health, behavior, and emotional well-being among adolescents in the various family types.”

The researchers then deploy a statistical model that also takes into account as “an intervening factor” the number and type of transitions in family structure during the course of the data-collection period. The results suggest that the distinctive advantage in behavioral health enjoyed by adolescent children in two-parent biological families can be explained to a significant degree as a consequence of such “intervening factors.”  The “exception” noted is found in “externalizing behavior problems among youth in biological mother and social-father families.”  Even in the researchers’ most sophisticated statistical model, such problems remain significantly more common among adolescents in this family type than among peers in two-biological-parent families.

In a similar fashion, the researchers find that a statistical model that takes into account transitions in family structure can account for some of the distinctive advantage in emotional well-being enjoyed by children in two-biological-parent families. This model reduces this advantage to statistical insignificance for internalizing behaviors. However, the researchers find that adolescents in single-mother and stepmother families are significantly more likely to report low self-esteem than are peers in two-biological-parent households. This deficit in self-esteem, however, has apparently not been noticed or reported by the parents of these adolescents.

What parents do not notice about adolescents’ distress in broken homes appears most clearly, however, in the gap between what parents say about their children’s physical health and what adolescents themselves say. The researchers find that if they analyze the parental-report data on adolescents’ physical health in their most sophisticated statistical model, the gap separating the children living with two biological parents from peers in other family types shrinks to statistical insignificance. However, when they analyze the adolescent self-report data on physical health, the results are “strikingly different.”  For in the analysis based on adolescents’ self-reports, the gap separating teens living with two biological parents from peers in broken homes remains statistically significant—and strikingly large. The researchers calculate that “results from this full model . . . suggest that the likelihood of reporting low overall health is 33 percentage points higher among adolescents in biological mother and social-father families, 21 points higher among youth in single-mother families, and 30 points higher among those in families with the biological father but not the biological mother present, than among adolescents in two-biological-parent families.”

With considerable justice, the researchers claim that their study “highlights the importance of . . . collecting data on perceived well-being from adolescents themselves, rather than relying solely on caregiver reports.”  Noting how their overall findings “concur with prior research” on the advantages that accrue to children with both biological parents, the researchers emphasize that these advantages “cannot be fully explained by antecedent characteristics or intervening factors.”  “Therefore,” they reason, “it may be possible to help promote adolescent well-being by adopting policies to support and preserve families in which adolescents live with both of their biological parents.”

It is hard to argue with such sound social logic.

(Callie E. Langton and Lawrence M. Berger, “Family Structure and Adolescent Physical Health, Behavior, and Emotional Well-Being,” Social Service Review 85.3 [2011]: 323-57.)