Study Says Broken Homes Harm Kids More
By EMMA ROSS
January 23, 2003
LONDON (AP) - Children growing up in single-parent families are twice as likely
as their counterparts to develop serious psychiatric illnesses and addictions
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.
Experts say the latest study, published this week in The Lancet medical journal,
is important mainly because of its unprecedented scale and follow-up - it
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 the research also supports the view that quality of parenting
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 depression or
schizophrenia, to kill themselves or attempt suicide, and to develop an
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 dysfunctional
families 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, indicates it is not so much single
parenthood but the quality of parenting 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.
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