A Family Affair

Parents, Children and Society

The Timing of Family Instability

Does WHEN parents and their partners change make a difference to children?
It comes as no news to anyone that family instability has has come to characterize the lives of many children over the past quarter century--and certainly far more so than it did when I was growing up in the 1950s. Most scholars concur that changes in who parents live with--or do not live with--often challenge children and can undermine their well being. Nevertheless, there remains much debate regarding the extent to which the changing make up of adults in the household--dad leaves, boyfriend moves in, bofriend departs--affects children's development in the short and longer term. One of the big issues that remains unresolved concerns the timing of changes in family structure.

The traditional early-experience perspective presumes that stability is more important for children early in life because change often is experienced as disruption, if only because the comings and goings of adults is hard for children to comprehend. Moreover, the departure of a familiar adult can be experienced as loss, with much pain attached to it. At older ages, some assume that children are better able to cope. Not only are they more cognitively sophisticated and thus better able to understand what is going on, but they typically have a larger world of important people in their lives on whom they can rely (e.g., teachers, friends).

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Some, of course, reject the early-experience framework, regarding it as outmoded, old fashioned, contending instead that it is what life throws at you at a particular point in time that matters most, not what happened earlier in life. Thus, were one concerned about understanding children's development at the end of the primary- school years, the place to look for insight would be what has been going on during that time, not before the onset of schooling.

This very debate caught the attention of one recent research team who realized they could examine data not originally collected to address the issue of family instability and children's development to illuminate the issue of timing of family changes. Sharon Cavanaugh and Aletha Huston of the University of Texas at Austin decided to analyse longitudinal data collected on more than 1,000 American children and their families followed from the time of the child's birth through fifth grade (~age 10). (see http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121531893/abstract)

Because mothers were interviewed repeatedly across this period and specifically queried about whether they lived with someone in a romantic relationship, it proved possible to measure the number of times there was a change in the mother-partner relationship. By the end of kindergarten, 25% of the children had experienced at least one exit or entrance of a biological parent or a parent's romantic partner and by the end of fourth grade this was true of about one out of every three children, with 13% experiencing just one transition, 10% two, 4% three and 5% four or more.

How did the number of changes relate to children's development in fifth grade once confounding factors had been taken into account (e.g., mother's age, education and depression, child's early day care experience)? First, analysis of fifth-grade teachers reports of children's social behavior revealed that those who experienced more life-time changes in family structure (i.e., comings and goings of partners of mothers in the household) were less competent with peers and engaged in more aggression and disobedience than children who experienced fewer such changes (including none at all). Especially important to appreciate is that these findings emerged after the child's social behavior in first grade had been taken into account. In other words, greater family instability predicted greater deterioration in child well being across the primary-school years. Of note, too is that children who experienced more change also rated themselves as lonelier than others in fifth grade.

But what about the issue of timing? Did family instability early in life seem to be especially important? As it turned out it did; indeed family instability occurring during the primary-school years failed to predict children's well being. What makes these findings especially intriguing is that early family instability was not related to how children functioned early in life--when they were in first grade. In other words, what was ultimately detected in this research was what might be regarded by developmetnal scholars as a "sleeper effect" -- an effect of early family instability that did not manifest itself early in life, but only later in life, by resulting in children developing less well across the primary school years when they experienced more family instability during their early years.

Also of note is that boys seemed to be particularly vulnerable to the effect of family instability. At least at this point in development, girls seemed to be more or less immune to the adverse effects of experiencing family instability early in life. Whether this remains the case as the children develop remains unknown. But as the larger research project on which this one study was based has continued to follow children through the age of 15, it should prove possible to find out. There are some who believe that the effects of divorce and related family structure changes show up--as a sleeper effect--in girls principally after they go through puberty and encounter the heterosexual world. Thus, one might anticipate, given the earlier detected effects on boys, that early family instability may increase the probability of  girls, during their teen years, experiencing depression and/or engaging in risk taking behavior (e.g., sex, drugs).

As in other postings, it is importance to not catastrophize the results of the study presented in this blog. Not only is not the case that each and every boy who experienced family instability was adversely affected by it, but the effects under consideration were not so extreme as to represent severe psychological disturbance. This is not to say that they do not matter, however. Just ask a child who feels lonely what that feels like!

Jay Belsky is Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London. more...

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