Transitions in Family Structure and Adolescent Well-Being

Article excerpt


This article reports on an empirical investigation into the effects of structural changes in family life on adolescent well-being. Four different types of family structure were distinguished: stable intact family, conflict intact family, single-parent family, and stepfamily. The first structural change in family life is the transition from a stable intact family to a problematic situation in the nuclear family: the conflict intact family. The second structural change is the transition from a conflict intact family to a single-parent family after divorce. The remarriage of the custodial parent, that is, the transition from a single-parent family to a stepfamily, is the third structural change. The long-term effects of these transitions on adolescent occupational, physical, psychological, and relational well-being were examined.

From Stable Intact Family to Conflict Intact Family

Most empirical studies on changes in family structure have focused on the effects of separation and/or divorce. However, most marital conflicts exist a long time before separation actually occurs. Following the study of Cherlin et al. (1992), we therefore also studied children in families with serious problems who were not yet dealing with separation or divorce. There is still much to investigate on this subject. Cherlin et al., for example, emphasized that the effects of conflict in troubled families were stronger for boys than for girls.

Dronkers (1993) concluded that there are significant differences in educational career between the children of nondivorced and divorced parents. But the divorce does not seem to be the most important predictor. It is possible that conflicts before separation have a significant effect. We also need more information about the changing family structure during separation and/or divorce. Conflicts in the intact family, preceding the process of separation and divorce, may be important predictors for adolescent well-being. The first interest here is in the transition from a stable intact family to a family in trouble.

From Conflict Intact Family to Single-Parent Family after Divorce

In the Netherlands, van Gelder (1989) examined the literature on the long-term effects of divorce. He established that children of single-parent families have slightly more doubts with respect to future married and family life. They are more active in forming relationships with the opposite sex and at the same time are more critical. Van Gelder also reported that children of divorced parents more often give birth to children outside marriage, get married earlier, and get divorced more often. Finally, they are more critical about their marriage relationship. De Graaf (1991) also reported on the effects of parental divorce on the demographic behavior of women in the Netherlands. He concluded that even after controlling for a number of background characteristics, females from single-parent families leave the parental home at a younger age, live together earlier without getting married, break up relationships more often, and tend to have a more negative opinion of their personal relationships.

Amato and Keith (1991) conducted a meta-analysis of studies dealing with the long-term consequences of parental divorce for adult well-being. Effect sizes were calculated for 15 outcome variables across 37 studies involving over 81,000 individuals. The authors concluded that parental divorce has significant negative effects on the well-being of the children in their adulthood. A number of variables such as teenage pregnancy, teenage marriage, social well-being, the quality of marriage, divorce, and physical health are involved. This pessimistic conclusion must be tempered however, since although the effect sizes are generally significant, they are weak. Moreover, effect sizes were significantly stronger in clinical studies than in studies based on community samples.

Various authors (including Demo & Acock, 1988) rightly point out that in much research into the effects of divorce, the two-parent family is implicitly or explicitly the norm. …