Sex Differences in the Effects of Family Structure on Children's Aggressive Behavior*

By Ram, Bali; Hou, Feng | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Sex Differences in the Effects of Family Structure on Children's Aggressive Behavior*


Ram, Bali, Hou, Feng, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


INTRODUCTION

There is no dearth of scientific literature and stereotypes on sex differences in children's emotional and behavioral outcomes. Both academic research and popular media have linked some of these outcomes to changes in family structure, particularly in light of the rising proportion of children who live in lone-parent and stepfamilies, away from their biological parents. One of the most controversial and sensitive themes concerns sex differences in aggressive behavior resulting from the family disruption process. There are a number of questions related to this theme which remain largely unresolved because of mixed, sometimes contradictory, evidence. Using data from Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), in this paper we address three questions: (1) Is living with a lone parent more harmful to boys than to girls, while living with a stepparent more harmful to girls? (2) Do boys and girls resort to different behaviors--externalizing versus internalizing--to express their aggressions in the face of comparable family changes? (3) Do boys and girls behave differently for different reasons when they are confronted with-similar family changes?

PAST RESEARCH AND THEORETICAL CONTEXT

There is a substantial body of literature on the negative consequences of family disruptions on children's well-being. Several studies have found the detrimental effects to be more severe and enduring on boys than on girls (Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan 1999; Krein and Beller 1988; Simons, et al, 1999; Weitoft, Hjern, Haglund, and Rosen, 2003), although there are some remarkable exceptions to this observation. A highly influential study by Cherlin and his colleagues (1991), which analyzed longitudinal data for British and American children, reached a mixed conclusion: boys were more likely than girls to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems in the American sample, while the converse was true in the British sample. Findings of another American study (Mott, Kowaleski-Jones, and Menaghan 1997), which analyzed data from the 1979-1990 rounds of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, were not conclusive either. In this study, the effects of a father's absence were generally more pronounced for boys than for girls, but these differences were not statistically significant. Using data from three national data sets on a broad array of social, emotional, academic and behavioral outcomes among adolescents Powell and Downey (1997; see also Downey and Powell, 1993) did not find any significant difference between male and female children, who lived with a lone parent. Amato and Sobolewski (2001) in their 17-year longitudinal data analysis of two generations did not find any significant differences between sons and daughters with respect to the effects of parental divorce and marital discord on adult children's psychological well-being. In some studies, sex differences were trivial (Zill, Morrison, and Coiro 1993), while in others (Cooney and Kurz 1996), the long-terms effects of parental divorce were shown to be stronger for girls than for boys. In their meta-analysis of 92 studies, Amato and Keith (1991) found that male and female children of divorce did not differ significantly on a number of outcomes, such as aggression, depression, delinquency, conduct, self esteem or happiness.

Research also shows that both boys and girls are adversely affected by family change, but they express their reactions in different ways. Under stress, boys are more likely to externalize while girls are more likely to internalize their emotions (Davies and Lindsay, 2001; Shaw et al. 1998). This hypothesis derives from the literature that suggests that gender differences in temperament are based on sex roles prescribed by culture and socialization. Girls are more resilient to a variety of stressful situations and consequently they are more likely to control and hold back their emotions rather than exhibit them, while boys tend to act out and adapt to means that are discernible. …

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