Over the past twenty years, researchers extensively inquired about the influence of family structure and family change on children’s well-being. The research was primarily motivated by the profound impact that family has on a person’s long-term life outcomes. The quality of parent-child relationships often predicts the quality of a child’s life in adulthood. At present, Canada is characterized by family diversity: the latest statistics show that two-thirds of all Canadian families include a married couple, one-fifth are living common-law, and 16% are single-parent households (The Vanier Institute of Family, 2018). Every family is unique: underneath its structure, there is a complex web of overlapping influences and relationships that shape a child’s mental and physical health. While pinpointing the exact effects of family structure and change is often quite challenging, there is an ample body of evidence suggesting a relationship between family-related predictors and certain life outcomes. This paper seeks to shed some light on the contingency of children’s life outcomes in their family contexts.
Parental Separation and the Absence of a Parent
The terminology of single-parenthood is quite complex and has evolved over the last couple of decades. In this paper, a single parent is defined as a parent that raises one or more children while living separately from their partner. For the sake of simplicity, there is no differentiation between single parents who had a baby while being single and those who attained their status due to divorce or loss of a partner. Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado (2018) report that between 1990 and 2010, the share of lone-parent households in Canada has remained stable at around 16%. The most common single-parent household arrangement in Canada is a mother and one or more children.
At the same time, during the same period, the employment rate of single parents had increased from 65 to 80%, which is probably why their risk of poverty diminished (Niewenhuis & Maldonado, 2018). Despite these positive trends in single parenthood in Canada, parents who raise their children without a partner still face challenges that compromise their children’s well-being. In Canada, lone mothers have poorer health status (Perez & Beaudet, 2018). They report more emotional distress as compared to mothers raising children with a partner. The level of distress is higher in newly separated mothers as opposed to those who separated from the fathers of their children a long time ago and have come to terms with their status since (Perez & Beaudet, 2018). Perez and Beaudet (2018) attribute poor health to the disadvantaged socioeconomic status that is common in single mothers in Canada.
Evidently, the economic and emotional distress of single parents spills into the lives of their children. Daryanani et al. (2016) report that children who grew up in households led by only one parent are more prone to psychopathology, even though the exact mechanisms of such a relationship has yet to be thoroughly studied. In their study, Daryanani et al. (2016) specifically focused on North American adolescents who were raised by single mothers and compared their characteristics to those living with both parents. Researchers discovered that single mothers were more likely to engage in controlling behaviors that stunt age-appropriate independence in children. In this case, control was not only seen as coercion and harsh discipline but also overprotection, a more covert type of control.
Alongside controlling behaviors, single mothers were also more likely to be rejected, which is as damaging as excessive control. Daryanani et al. (2016) highlight that there is nothing inherently wrong with being a single mother. In fact, previous research cited by Daryanani et al. (2016), the majority of children who grew up with single parents are well-adjusted. Yet, it is critical for lone parents to reach out for help and support to avert mental problems that will in turn, negatively impact their children.
However, research suggests that there is a difference between single-parent households that emerged due to parents’ separation and those that were created by choice. Golombok et al. (2016) write that the number of so-called “solo mothers” or single mothers by choice has been on the rise in the United Kingdom and North America. Golombok et al. (2016) state that solo mothers constitute a distinct socioeconomic group: they are typically well-educated and intentional about childbirth. Comparing single mothers by choice and mothers raising children with partners have shown no significant difference in children’s adjustment. Golombok et al. (2016) speculate that the number of parents might not be as influential as factors such as financial status and social support.
Divorce and Children’s Well-Being
Apparently, the situation is different when a single-parent household is a result of a divorce. In this case, the situation might be exacerbated by the tension between the partners. Besides, if the second parent was fairly involved in children’s lives, they may be profoundly traumatized by separation. Leopold and Kalmijn (2016) have found that divorce is more painful when couples have children. The presence of children makes a decline in everyone’s well-being sharper, especially if those children are young. Apart from that, there is a gender component in how divorce affects family structures and children. Leopold and Kalmijn (2016) report that it was mothers who were hurt economically by divorce while fathers were not affected as much.
Today, numerous studies have documented the effects of divorce on children’s well-being. Comparing children of divorced and non-divorced parents, Weaver and Schofield (2015) discovered that in the first case, children were displaying more behavioral problems – both internalizing and externalizing. The relationship between divorce and problematic behavior was moderated by family income. Children whose parents’ respective financial standings remained intact after the separation were more resilient and mentally stable. Some other factors that correlated with better outcomes in children of divorced parents are children’s IQ and maternal sensitivity. Apparently, mothers played a significant role in helping children adjust to the consequences of divorce. Children were worse off if their mothers were less attuned to their needs and experiencing depressive symptoms because of the separation.
Remarriage and Stepfamilies
It is not uncommon for divorced parents to remarry at some point. The existing family structure becomes transformed: sometimes remarriage or at least finding a new partner means having one more parent. Sometimes, however, both partners have children of their own, and remarriage makes them step-siblings. Jensen et al. (2017) report that stepfamilies are the fastest growing family structure in North America. This change may be attributed to the partial disappearance of stigma around divorce and remarriage. The question arises as to how stepfamilies affect the well-being of children. Jensen et al. (2017) write that stepfamilies often have quite complicated dynamics because they are characterized by the presence of three dyads: stepparent-child, parent-child, and step couple. The quality of each of these dyads is the decisive factor in the socio-economic and mental health of the entire family. However, interestingly enough, the most powerful dyad in terms of its impact on children’s well-being was parent-child. Apparently, it is the biological parent-child relationship that serves as a protective factor when children transition into a new family structure.
The Death of a Parent or a Sibling
One of the most tragic changes that can happen to a family is the death of a family member, be it a parent or a sibling. The death of a parent often leads not only to an emotional turmoil within a family but also to a socioeconomic crisis, especially, if the late parent was the only or primary breadwinner. Stikkelbroek et al. (2016) report that the death of a parent is associated with mental health problems in approximately 25% of children. At the two-year follow-up, bereaved children showed more internalizing problems as compared to non-bereaved children. According to Stikkelbroek et al. (2016), internalizing problems are “secret illnesses”: they might not be manifesting themselves but be extremely detrimental to a child’s well-being and future life outcomes. Internalizing problems include concentration problems, sadness, withdrawal, fear, and others.
Multiple bereavements caused by multiple deaths or other losses put children at an even higher risk of developing internalizing behaviors and lower risk of developing externalizing behaviors. Externalizing behaviors are characterized as problematic behaviors that are directed at the outside world such as physical aggression, emotional outbursts, and violence (Stikkelbroeck et al., 2016). Both externalizing and internalizing behaviors in children are concerning; however, the danger of internalizing behaviors is in their secretive nature. They can continue for years unaddressed and exacerbate the already fragile mental state of a child crushed by the death of a parent.
The extant literature suggests that the death of a sibling is an extremely emotionally traumatizing event that may result in longstanding adverse outcomes and even premature death. In a Canadian population-based longitudinal case-control study, Bolton et al. (2016) discovered that children had a substantial level of morbidity two years after the loss of their sibling. According to Bolton et al. (2016), the most vulnerable group was children under 13: for them, the bereavement predicted a sevenfold rate of depression as compared to older children. Apart from that, the death of a sibling was associated with twice as high the rate of suicide attempts and substance abuse (Bolton et al., 2015). To conclude, the loss of a relative, especially as close as a parent or a sibling is an event that is disruptive to children’s normal course of life. Younger kids are especially susceptible to suffering from mental issues, probably, because they do not have sufficient emotional and social resources for recovery.
However, the life outcomes of bereaved children are still contingent on the environment where they process grief. As mentioned before, the danger of losing a relative at a young age lies in the lack of resources to facilitate mental restoration. A new concept of mental restoration that has been gaining quite a lot of traction in the field of psychology is post-traumatic growth, or grief-related growth. According to Howard Sharp et al. (2018), grief-related growth encompasses positive changes or personal development resulting from grief. In other words, trauma becomes a source of strength and resilience: by experiencing it, an individual becomes more mature and learns to put his or her life in a perspective (Howard Sharp et al., 2018).
Howard Sharp et al. (2018) report that while family support of bereaved children is important, it is not sufficient for long-term positive outcomes. In their study, Howard Sharp et al. (2018) discovered that bereaved children recovered better when family support was complemented by positive teacher, friend, and peer influence. Based on these findings, it is safe to assume that children who are integrated and socialized have better chances to turn grief into growth and have a fulfilling life free of mental issues later on.
Grandparents Raising Children
A peculiar family structure that is worth mentioning in this paper is a skipped generation family or a family where grandparents are primary custodians of their grandchildren. According to Whitley, Fuller-Thomson, and Brennenstuhl (2015), between 1991 and 2001, there was a 20% increase in the number of households led by grandparents in Canada. In the 2000s, the number of such households amounted to 26,790. Whitley, Fuller-Thomson, and Brennenstuhl (2015) attribute the emergence of such a family structure to several causes. In some families, grandparents overtake the childrearing because of the parents. It is not rare, however, for grandmothers and grandfathers to be given full custody due to the intervention of child protection services (Whitley et al., 2015). In this case, this type of family emerges due to parents’ inability or unwillingness to raise children.
It is readily imaginable that elderly people may encounter difficulties taking care of young children. Whitley et al. (2015) inquire about the health characteristics of Canadian and US grandparents raising grandchildren in comparison with single parents. It appears that both grandparents and single parents are at risk of adverse mental conditions: Whitley et al. (2015) report a 20% lifetime depression rate for both groups. However, grandparents in full custody of grandchildren demonstrated more problematic health behaviors: as compared to single parents, they were slightly more likely to smoke and significantly less likely to exercise regularly. On the other hand, grandparents in the study by Whitley et al. (2015) had better access to medical services.
Sampson and Hertlein (2015) focus on the emotional health of grandparents leading households. The researchers report that having to take on the responsibility of single-handedly raising grandchildren have had a profound impact on grandparents’ lives. The participants of the study admitted to experiencing emotional distress due to the resentment for parents abandoning their children and the burden of the new liabilities. At the same time, grandparents have suffered from adverse social changes where some of them became excluded from social life due to the need to babysit and adjust their schedule to their new role (Sampson & Hertlein, 2015). Even if grandparents have mutually fulfilling, affectionate relationships with grandchildren, overtaking the child-rearing process still puts a strain on their lives.
Evidently, the emotional distress of having to provide for grandchildren translates into adverse children’s outcomes. Pilkauskas and Dunifon (2016) studied the characteristics of children living in grandfamilies. The researchers discovered that such children had poorer outcomes than children living with parents or one parent. This fact stood true even when children living with grandparents were compared to children living with only mothers and coming from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. According to Pilkauskas and Dunifon (2016), children raised by grandparents had a higher rate of ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). This condition is likely to have been spilling into their academic performance. Pilkauskas and Dunifon (2016) reported poorer teacher-student cooperation, inattentiveness, and disruptive behavior among children living in grandfamilies.
The study does not quite explain what exactly leads to these adverse outcomes. However, the researchers speculate that mental conditions and their consequences such as poor academic performance might be attributed to early separation trauma. Aside from that, these children are likely to be attuned to their grandparents’ emotional states and contacting nonresident parents who have high rates of depression, substance use, and health problems.
Family is the first and most important environment in a child’s life. His or her well-being and life outcomes are contingent on the quality of family relationships and their structure. Today, Canada is characterized by the diversity of family structures that are different from the nuclear family with two parents. Because the social institution of the family is undergoing transformations, it is compelling to understand how each of the existing family structures impacts children’s mental and physical health. Despite some positive changes in the last three decades, single parenthood, especially motherhood, is still associated with emotional and socioeconomic distress. Divorce or separation of parents also has an adverse impact on children’s well-being. The death of a relative, especially a close one such a parent or a sibling, is linked to a variety of negative outcomes from depression to substance use and suicidal attempts. Households led by grandparents are also often put under strain. Nevertheless, none of these events or family forms are inherently bad: with proper support and commitment to positive change, families can show resilience in the face of adversity and meet all children’s needs.
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