When parental separation takes place in high-income families, children are more likely to experience behavioral issues, according to a new study in the journal Child Development. In addition to this, going from a single-parent family into a stepparent family improved children’s behavior in higher-income families, but not in lower-income families.
“Our findings suggest that family changes affect children’s behavior in higher-income families more than children’s behavior in lower-income families — for better and for worse,” said study leader Dr. Rebecca M. Ryan, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
The study was co-authored by Amy Claessens, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Georgetown doctoral student Anna Markowitz.
Before they reach young adulthood, at least half of children in the U.S. will experience parental separation, divorce, re-partnering, or remarriage, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth.
Prior research has suggested that children have more behavioral problems (such as aggression and defiance) when the family structure changes. Researchers assessed how different kinds of family changes related to children’s behavior problems between ages three and 12 using a national sample of nearly 4,000 children (the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth).
Children were divided into three groups: those in families living under 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL), those living between 200% and 300% of the FPL, and those living above 300% of the FPL around the time of the child’s birth. (Income levels in these groups vary by family size and year, but in 2013, a family of four living under 200% of the FPL would earn about $47,100 or less, a family of four living between 200% and 300% of the FPL would earn between $47,100 and $70,650, and a family of four living above 300% of the FPL would earn more than $70,650.)
The study also compared the effects of parents’ separation and remarriage or re-partnering on children’s behavioral problems when children were five years old or younger versus when they were six to 12 years old.
While changes in family structure affected the behavior of children from high-income families, they didn’t affect the behavior of children in low-income families. This may be because families with few economic resources at the outset may not experience as dramatic a change in economic circumstance when parents separate as those with greater initial resources, the researchers suggest. Moreover, single-parent and blended families occur more often among lower-income families; in this context, single-parent and re-partnered families may be perceived differently.
For children from high-income families, the researchers found that the effects of family change varied by age. Parent separation increased the likelihood that children would have behavioral problems only if the separation took place when the children were five or younger. However, moving into a stepparent family benefited children’s behavior only when it occurred after age six.
“These findings suggest that both economic context and children’s age are important to consider in understanding the effects of family structure on children,” said Ryan. “While economic resources in many ways buffer children, higher initial family income doesn’t appear to be a protective factor when parents separate, at least for younger children.”
Couples Counseling in Orange County
Parental separation is difficult for children, but it doesn’t have to be. Couples counseling can also include counseling through a divorce or family counseling to make this transition easier on the entire family. However, if you’re in a situation where you’d like to avoid separation, couples counseling may be able to help you deal with the issues in your relationship as well.
If you feel that you are in need of couples counseling in the Newport Beach, Irvine, or Orange County area, help is available. Please contact Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW, at (949) 251-8797 or make an appointment on her website.