Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Race/Ethnic Differences in Effects of Family Instability on Adolescents' Risk Behavior

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Race/Ethnic Differences in Effects of Family Instability on Adolescents' Risk Behavior

Article excerpt

We used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (N = 7,686) to determine whether racial and ethnic differences in socioeconomic stress and social protection explained group differences in the association between family structure instability and three risk behaviors for White, Black, and Mexican American adolescents: delinquent behavior, age at first nonmarital sex, and age at first nonmarital birth. The positive association between mothers' union transitions and each outcome for White adolescents was attenuated by social protection. The association of instability with age at first sex and first nonmarital birth was weaker for Black adolescents but not for Mexican American adolescents. The weaker association was explained by Black adolescents' more frequent exposure to socioeconomic stress in the context of union instability.

Key Words: adolescence, development, family diversity, family structure, outcomes, social context.

A growing body of research has documented that family instability, defined as children's exposure to repeated changes in a parent's union status, has negative consequences for children's and adolescents' behavioral adjustment and school performance, independent of family structure at any point in time (Cavanagh & Huston, 2006; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Wu, 1996). The social significance of family instability has increased with its prevalence: Today, approximately one fifth of adolescents in the United States have experienced two or more changes in family structure (Cavanagh, 2008), a significant contrast to family organization during much of the 20th century (Cherlin, 2009). The consequences of instability for children have become increasingly salient as the prevalence of births within cohabiting unions has increased (Chandra, Martinez, Mosher, Abma, & Jones, 2005) while cohabiting unions have remained relatively unstable union types compared to marriage (Manning, Smock, & Majumdar, 2004), as research has sought to explain why children born to single mothers who remain unmarried fare at least as well and perhaps better than children residing in stepfamilies (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994), and as researchers have evaluated the consequences of marriage promotion programs targeted at lowincome single mothers (Graefe & Lichter, 2007).

Despite the increasing relevance of family instability to explain variation in children's behavioral and academic development, there has been little research to explain a provocative finding: Instability appears to have a strong association with some aspects of behavioral development for White children but not for Black children (Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Wu & Martinson, 1993; Wu & Thomson, 2001). To address this discrepancy, we tested two explanations that have been posited to explain racial and ethnic differences in children's adjustment to family change: social protection and socioeconomic stress (McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, & Wilson, 2000). We used nationally representative data to compare the relative importance of these mechanisms for explaining differences in the association of family structure instability with three risk behaviors for White, Black, and Mexican American adolescents: self-reported delinquent behavior, age at nonmarital sexual initiation, and age at first nonmarital birth.

Studies of family structure instability have added to earlier research that used static measures of family structure by testing the theory that repeated disruptions to the family system, caused by either the addition or departure of a parent's partner, may lead to behaviors with potentially deleterious long-term consequences. Although a full causal chain has not been identified, various explanations for why instability matters for children's behavior have been supported by empirical research. These include children's repeated exposure to poor union quality in the context of dissolving or newly forming unions (Fomby & Osborne, 2008), compromised parent-child relationships in response to persistent instability (Cavanagh, 2008), maternal stress following a family structure transition (Osborne & McLanahan, 2007), and co-occurring disruption to broader social contexts (Krohn, Hall, & Lizotte, 2009). …

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