By: Juho Härkönen Recent decades of family change have seen increases in cohabitation rather than marriage, family dissolution, step-family formation and joint residential custody. Children are involved in many of these increasingly common family transitions and family forms.
In the 2000s, the share of children born to lone mothers varied between less than 5 % in much of Europe to around 15 % in the UK and the US. Of those whose both parents were present at birth, around 10 % of Italian or Spanish children experienced their parents’ separation. The corresponding figure in Sweden was 28 %, and up to above 40 % in France and the USA. Depending on the country, another 5-15 % of the children from separated families end up living with a step-parent within 6 years (Andersson et al., forthcoming).
Whether or not experiencing parental separation, how step-family formation or joint residential custody affects children in terms of their well-being or educational achievement has always been of public interest. Strong opinions have been voiced both by those who believe that growing up with one’s biological parents is in children’s best interest and by those believing that alternative family forms are equally beneficial. Decades of research have provided partial support for both perspectives.
Children whose parents separate cease to live with both of their parents and often, in their previous home. Parental separation can mean a fall in the children’s economic living standards and overall be an unwelcome experience shaped by parental conflict, sadness and adjustment to the new situation, both by the children and their parents. Because parental separation is often a process that starts to unfold years before the parents move apart, the life changes related to the separation can be visible much before the separation event. Likewise, the separation process can extend well beyond the event due to parental conflicts, legal battles or other reasons.
Despite these many changes, many children cope reasonably well with the new situation. Parental separation does not have long-lasting effects on the psychological well-being, school performance, or social relationships of a large minority, or even the majority of children. Yet children react to parental separation in very different ways. Some children experience major declines in their well-being and may never fully recover. For others, the parental separation can be a way out from a stressful family environment plagued by conflict or even violence.
However, the share of children who experience well-being losses is generally larger than of those who experience gains. This means that the average effect of parental separation is in most studies found to be negative. The effects are more likely to be negative if the separation dissolves a family with low levels of conflict, and more likely to be positive when it ends a high-conflict family (Härkönen et al. 2017).
Parental separation is often just one of the family transitions children can experience. Experiencing multiple changes can in itself be stressful and be negative for the child’s well-being. One version of this perspective holds that family structure stability is important, regardless of what the family structure is. Others have been more skeptical: for example, children born to lone mothers fare better if the family is later joined by the biological father rather than a step-father. In general, children in step-families have lower levels of well-being than children who live stably with their biological parents, and sometimes, their well-being levels are also lower than of children who live with a single parent (Härkönen et al. 2017).
Children of separated parents increasingly share their time living with both of their parents. Many studies have found that children in joint residential custody fare better than those who reside with only one of the parents (e.g., Turunen 2016). However, this may not be the best solution in all cases, and joint custody can have negative effects if the parents continue to have a high level of conflict.
It is unlikely that we will witness a reversal to stable families formed around a couple and their biological children. It is important to acknowledge the consequences that different forms of family instability can have for children. These consequences have not disappeared even as multiple family forms have become more common and accepted. At the same time, it is equally important to understand that these consequences are not always negative. The effects of family forms on children’s well-being are complex. Although this complexity can make it difficult to formulate easy policy conclusions, acknowledging it is necessary for a realistic account of the effects of family change on children’s lives.
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