LONDON (AP) --
Children growing up in single-parent
families are twice as likely as their counterparts to
develop serious psychiatric illnesses and
later in life, according to an important new study.
Researchers have for years debated whether children from broken homes bounce
back or whether they are more likely than kids whose parents stay together
to develop serious emotional problems.
the latest study,
published this week in The Lancet medical journal, is important mainly
because of its unprecedented scale and follow-up --
tracked about 1 million children for
a decade, into their mid-20s. The question of why and how those
children end up with such problems remains unanswered. The study suggests
that financial hardship may play a role, but other experts say
also supports the view that
could be a factor.
The study used the Swedish national
registries, which cover almost the entire population and contain extensive
socio-economic and health information. Children were considered to be living
in a single-parent household if they were living with the same single adult
in both the 1985 and 1990 housing census. That could have been the result of
divorce, separation, death of a parent, out of wedlock birth, guardianship
or other reasons.
About 60,000 were living with their
mother and about 5,500 with their father. There were 921,257 living with
both parents. The children were aged between 6 and 18 at the start of the
study, with half already in their teens.
The scientists found that children
with single parents were twice as likely as the others to develop a
psychiatric illness such as severe
or schizophrenia, to kill
themselves or attempt
and to develop an alcohol-related disease.
Girls were three times more likely to become drug addicts if they lived with
a sole parent, and boys were four times more likely.
The researchers concluded that
financial hardship, which they defined as renting rather than owning a home
and as being on welfare, made a big difference. However, other experts
questioned the financial influence, saying Swedish single mothers are not
poor when compared with those in other countries, and suggested that quality
of parenting could also be a factor.
"It makes you think that what you're
seeing is just the most
having these problems, rather
than the low income. The money is really an indicator of something else,''
said Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at
Princeton University, who was not involved in the study.
`` "If you really
thought that it was the income that makes the difference, you would think
that Swedish lone mothers would do a lot better than the British or those in
the U.S., but they look very similar,'' she said. Other experts agreed.
In the last 20 to 30 years,
poverty has been greatly reduced
everywhere in Europe, but psychiatric problems in children have not, said Dr. Stephen Scott, a child health and behavior
researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who also was not
involved in the study. He said that in previous studies, once researchers
have adjusted their results to eliminate the influence of bad parenting, any
increased risk of emotional problems shrinks markedly. This, he said,
it is not so much single
parenthood but the
that is at issue.
The kind of people who end up as
single parents might not have done well by their kids, even if they hadn't
ended up alone. They tend to be more critical in their relationships, more
derogatory toward other people,'' Scott said, adding that it is also harder
to be a warm, non-critical parent when you're bringing up a child alone.
However, he noted that there are plenty of children from single-parent
families who don't end up with serious emotional problems.
There may also be a genetic element:
More irritable people are more likely to become separated, but they are also
more likely, whether they are separated or not, to have more irritable
children, Scott said. "The whole field is highly debated. This is another
piece in that debate that makes several important points --
firstly that there really is an
increased risk in young adulthood of pretty bad things. It also
indicates it's not all about the money but may be about the people
themselves,'' McLanahan said.
Note several things about this research and article:
The findings are similar to
those in this UCLA research;
doesn't mention whether the single parents themselves came from "broken
It offers no
ideas on why Swedish kids in a single-parent home have greater problems than peers
in intact families. My clinical experience with hundreds of
legal and psychological divorce usually
family-adult ignorance of minor kids'
complex divorce-adjustment needs,
adults' inability to fill these needs effectively.
The summary doesn't comment
about the influence of the other bioparent, if living, or the co-parenting
relationship between ex mates;
It doesn't suggest whether the findings
may apply to
parents and children in other countries;
The language of this report reinforces the
outdated "medical model" of "mental illness," rather than the
model of psychological and relationship problems.
This summary doesn't indicate whether any
attempt was made to measure the nurturance-level of the children's
families before parental separation, death, or
divorce. Given the size and scope
of the study, this may not have been practical.
This research summary does
potential harm by suggesting that kids' problems come from "broken
homes" rather than from what caused their homes to "break":
years' clinical research, I propose that most family (marital) breakups
are caused by parents' inherited psychological
of these factors
The summary doesn't note that "divorce" can
be psychological but not legal - so kids in dysfunctional intact homes
are also at risk of significant developmental and social problems.
My research suggests that unaware,
psychologically-wounded parents unintentionally
similar wounds to
vulnerable descendents. Unidentified and untreated, these wounds
are likely to contribute to many relationship, occupational, parenting, and
like those mentioned in this study.