Children of separated parents in high- as opposed to low-income families are more likely to experience problems, according to a new study in the journal Child Development.
And 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 their parents separating, divorcing, re- partnering, or getting remarried, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth.
Prior research has suggested that children have more behavior problems (such as aggression and defiance) when 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 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL), those living between 200 percent and 300 percent of the FPL, and those living above 300 percent 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 percent of the FPL would earn about $47,100 or less, a family of four living between 200 percent and 300percent of the FPL would earn between $47,100 and $70,650, and a family of four living above 300 percent of the FPL would earn more than $70,650.)
The study also compared the effects of parents’ separation and remarriage or repartnering on children’s behavior 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 repartnered families may be perceived differently.
For children from high-income families, the researchers found that the effects of family change varied by age. Parents’ separation increased the likelihood that children would have behavior 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.”