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 

Teens Tossing and Turning in the Torn-Up Home

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Physicians well understand that adolescents need adequate sleep to maintain good health. But not all adolescents are equally likely to get that much-needed sleep: a study recently completed at the RAND Corporation and the University of Pittsburgh reveals that adolescents are more likely to enjoy the benefits of healthy slumber if they live in an intact family than if they live in one of the nation’s growing number of broken homes. 

The authors of the study begin their inquiry acutely aware that “sleep is critical for adolescent health.” Unfortunately, many young people suffer from “sleep disturbances . . . associated with a wide variety of adverse health outcomes, including increased risk for the development of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.” To determine the effects of family environment on such health-compromising sleep disturbances, the RAND and Pittsburgh scholars scrutinize data collected from 242 healthy adolescents (average age of 15.7 years), all enrolled in a Pittsburgh high school.  

In their raw data, the researchers discern a clear pattern: “adolescents from single-parent homes had significantly lower actigraphy-assessed S[leep]E[fficiency] (across the full week, weekdays, and weekends); shorter weekend sleep duration; and greater variability in bedtimes across the week . . .  compared to adolescents from 2-parent households.” The picture remains largely the same when researchers re-assess the data using statistical models that compensate for age, sex, race, body mass index (BMI), depressive symptoms, parental education, family conflict, and financial strain. These statistical models still reveal “a significant association between family structure and S[leep]E[fficiency] across the full week and weekend sleep duration.”

To be sure, the adjusted statistical models do show that “race moderated the impact of family structure on several sleep problems.” More particularly, only among white adolescents living in single-parent households do the researchers see an elevated vulnerability to “sleep-wake problems”—that is, “behaviors indicative of erratic or delayed sleep-wake pattern.” Among black adolescents, the researchers see no effect of family structure on sleep-wake problems.

Family structure does, however, emerge as a significant predictor of other types of sleep deficiencies for black adolescents. In particular, the researchers note that “black adolescents from single-parent homes had the lowest weekend S[leep]E[fficiency] compared to all other groups.”  Perhaps, the researchers suggest, “black adolescents from single-parent homes may have less of an opportunity [than do peers from intact families] to catch up on sleep on weekends, perhaps due to other competing obligations (e.g., household responsibilities, paid work outside of the home).”

Despite the ethnic differences, the researchers limn a clear overall pattern: living in a single-parent home clearly predicts sleep deficits for adolescents regardless of race. Adolescents in single-parent homes, the researchers plausibly reason, “may be at greater risk for sleep problems [than are peers living in intact families] due to decreased parental supervision or inconsistent family routines.”

In their concluding summary, the RAND and Pittsburgh scholars acknowledge that the effects of family structure on adolescents’ sleep are not especially large, but they are “comparable in magnitude to other known risk factors.” What is more, the researchers see their findings complementing earlier studies establishing that “among adults, single or divorced marital status is associated with an increased risk for sleep symptoms and clinically notable sleep disorders such as insomnia.” The researchers also understandably regard their study as a partial explanation of “several decades of research . . . show[ing] that family structure—most often defined by parental marital status . . . has profound effects on children’s mental and physical health.” 

Impelled by the far-from-negligible importance of their findings, the researchers urge their public-health colleagues to attend to how “family environments influence adolescent health and well-being, during both day and night.” 

(Wendy M. Troxel et al., “Single-Parent Family Structure and Sleep Problems in Black and White Adolescents,” Sleep Medicine 15.2 [2014]: 255-61.)