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 

Small State, Big Lesson

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Mental-health statistics for children living in America’s smallest state underscore the huge importance of family life. Rhode Island state officials recently published the findings they reached in conducting the state’s first-ever population-based investigation of how family functioning affects children’s mental health. Those findings clarify how parental stress and nontraditional family structure both predict children’s vulnerability to psychopathology.

Overall, the authors find that “among Rhode Island children, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) had mental health problems.” Predictably enough, the incidence of mental-health problems ran particularly high (33 percent) among children living with parents reporting high levels of parental stress (p<.001). But the complete story involves not just parental stress. It involves family structure as well: the rate for mental-health problems came in significantly higher among children living with a single mother (25.7 percent) or in a stepfamily (26.6 percent) than it did among children living with two biological or adoptive parents (13.3 percent; p<.001).

The researchers conclude their study with an appeal to “health care providers, schools, public and private insurers, and social services” who can join forces in “providing appropriate support services to address the needs of both parents and children.” But these researchers’ data would strongly suggest that any attempt to improve children’s mental health should include measures to encourage and fortify marriage.

(Hyun [Hanna] K. Kim et al., “Children’s Mental Health and Family Functioning in Rhode Island,” Pediatrics 119 Supplement 1 [2007]: S23–28.)