The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. D. Family Structure


ast research has emphasized the important role that family-related variables play in the prediction of various adolescent risky behaviors (e.g., Hawkins, et al., 1992; Kandel, 1996). It also seems likely that the impact of adolescent risk factors on adult outcomes is influenced, for the better or worse, by the adolescent's family unit. Family structure research has shown that divorce can be a major force in shaping children's lives. Marital disruption is associated with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems and lowered academic achievement in children who have undergone the dissolution (Amato and Keith, 1991a; Hetherington, 1989; Wallerstein, 1988). Moore, et al. (1995), for example, reported that disruption of parents' marriage and living with a single parent are related to earlier onset of adolescent sexual behavior. These researchers speculate that this finding may be explained by lower family incomes, disadvantaged neighborhoods, less supervision and parental modeling, and more permissive attitudes in single parent families.

In their meta-analysis of the influence of divorce on children's adjustment, Amato and Keith (1991a) discovered that effect sizes were modest (mostly due to the large variability within any type of family structure), but the largest impact occurred in the arena of behavior problems. Children of divorce were twice as likely as children from intact families to display outcomes of dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, teenage idleness, and truancy. Wells' and Rankin's (1991) meta-analysis focusing on the relationship of broken homes and delinquency, clarified this issue further. They found that broken homes were indeed more likely than intact homes to have delinquent adolescents. They found that the association between family structure and delinquency was er for more minor offenses rather than serious types of crime (see also Nye, 1958; Rankin, 1983; Wilkinson, 1980). They also could find no consistent evidence that step-parent families were more likely than single-parent families to include delinquents.

Although there is some debate as to the extent of repercussions for children of divorce 2, it is generally accepted that most children whose parents divorce eventually grow into relatively well-functioning adults (Hetherington and Clingempeel, 1992). There are, however, in some cases, consequences from parents' divorce that will result in adjustment problems even in adulthood. Adults from divorced families of origin have shown more behavior problems, lower feelings of well-being, lower socioeconomic attainment, higher marital instability and divorce, and more difficulties in workplace and family relationships (Amato and Keith, 1991b; Amato, Loomis, and Booth, 1995; Booth and Amato, 1994; Hetherington, 1999; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). On the other hand, some research finds no lasting substantive effects of divorce into adulthood. Lang and Zagorsky (2001), for instance, using 1979-1993 NLSY79 data, found that once background characteristics are controlled for, the influence of having an absent parent during childhood on adult economic attainment is not substantial. The exceptions to this rule are the significant effects that a father's presence has on adult sons' and daughters' cognitive performance and education and that a mother's presence has on these outcome variables for adult daughters.

Amato (1999) presents research consistent with the idea that the negative effects of divorce may last into adulthood, drawing on life course and risk/resiliency perspectives. A basic assumption of the life course approach is that the effects of one's family of origin are long-lasting--influencing an individual even after he or she leaves the fold (Elder, 1994). The risk and resiliency perspective holds that children's reactions to a stressful event such as parental divorce can be substantially shaped by the amount and the quality of resources in their lives. Some children are more resilient than others in the face of life's stressors. The idea that parental divorce can have long-term effects on individuals is consistent with both approaches.

Amato (1999) compared adults from various types of family structure on four measures of adjustment: socioeconomic, marital quality, relationship with parents, and subjective well-being. Analysis of education and employment measures from the National Survey of Families and Households showed that parental divorce decreased educational attainment for white men and women and black women by about one half year. The disparity in earnings for white men whose parents divorced compared to those whose parents remained married was about $4000 less every year; this difference was $2000 for white women. Education differences accounted for most of this financial disproportion. These results were consistent with other studies that have found children or young adults from broken homes more likely than individuals from intact families of origin to drop out of high school, to not attend college, to be unemployed, and to be at a comparative financial disadvantage (Keith and Finlay, 1988; Krein, 1986; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994; McLeod, 1991; Wadsworth and McLean, 1986).

Amato (1999) used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course study which sampled married adults over a 12 year period and found that adults who were raised in happy intact families were the happiest with their own marriages. Individuals from unhappy intact and divorced families of origin reported the highest levels of conflict and instability in their own marriages. Previous research has shown that the likelihood for divorce is the lowest when neither partner comes from a divorced family of origin and the likelihood for divorce is highest when both spouses come from this type of family (Amato, 1996). In other findings, Amato (1999) found that having divorced parents compared to having an intact family of origin weakened the relationships with parents, especially with fathers. Same-sex bonds (father/son and mother/daughter) did not show this pattern if the divorce occurred during late adolescence. One final realm--well-being--also showed signs of being affected by divorce in one's family of origin. Happiness and satisfaction levels were lowest of all for adults from divorced families. Related research has found that, even after controlling for pre-divorce measures of behavioral and academic problems, parental divorce is related to psychological problems in adulthood (Chase-Lansdale, Cherlin, and Kiernan, 1995).

McLanahan's (1999) findings are consistent with Amato's. In her examination of labor market detachment (neither working nor in school) using several large, nationally representative surveys, she found that young men at ages 23 to 26 years old from single-parent families were about 1.5 times as likely to be out of school and out of work as men from intact homes. This same difference in detachment existed even when dropout rates are held constant. Blacks were especially sensitive to the effects of family structure on labor market success, with growing up in a single-parent home increasing idleness incidence rates by 40 percent for blacks and only 30 percent for whites.

McLanahan (1999) also examined the relationship between family structure and early family formation among women. The results showed that the proportion of young women who experienced teenage pregnancy was significantly higher for respondents coming from a non-intact family compared to women from two-parent households.

NLSY79 data revealed that white females from non-intact families compared to their counterparts had a 14 percentage point greater risk of becoming a mother during the teenage years. For white women from families with higher SES, the risk of teenage pregnancy was 5 times greater for those with family disruption; for blacks from higher SES families, the risk was twice as high. An interesting note to this research is that neither the amount of time a child spent in a non-intact family nor the timing of the marital dissolution had any effect on the long-term consequences studied. Remarriage also did not seem to make a difference in the child's likelihood of avoiding teenage parenthood.

McLanahan (1999) posits three main reasons that children growing up in a single-parent home suffer in comparison to those from intact homes: (1) fewer financial resources, (2) less available time and energy to monitor and care for children, and (3) reduced access to community resources that can act as an extra support to parents. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) also emphasized the importance of economic disadvantage in powering the negative effects of divorce on children. McLanahan (1999) suggested that economic instability is the culprit that accounts for half of the disadvantage that often accompanies being raised in a single-parent home. Parenting factors may be responsible for half the increased high school dropout rate among children from one-parent homes. Adjusting for parental resources did not make much of a difference in accounting for teenage birth risk, but it did entirely close the disparity between those from intact and single-parent families in the area of labor force detachment.

It is interesting to note that even though remarrying is likely to put intact families and reconstituted families in the same financial position, this benefit does not translate into equal footing for the children in other areas (Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991; Hanson, McLanahan, and Thomson, 1996; Hetherington, 1993). McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) reported that often stepchildren living in blended families do not outperform children from single-parent families, and in some cases they even perform worse. The lack of a positive effect and sometimes even a harmful effect of remarriage on educational outcomes has been shown repeatedly in the literature (Boggess, 1998). Wojtkiewicz' (1993) found that length of time exposed to a stepfather was related to lowered probability of graduating from high school. Ginther and Pollack (2001) similarly found that, in general, children from stable blended families had shown less positive educational outcomes than children in intact families. Children from blended families had outcomes similar to children from single-parent families. These researchers also found that within stable blended families there is no significant difference between the performance of stepchildren and the biological children.