Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Well-Being of Adolescents in Households with No Biological Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Well-Being of Adolescents in Households with No Biological Parents

Article excerpt

On the basis of a large, nationally representative sample of 19,071 American middle-school students, the current study compares adolescents living with neither biological parent with their peers in five other family structures on a wide range of outcome measures. The results reveal some overall disadvantages of living with neither parent, although the disadvantages relative to nontraditional families are limited. Differences in family resources either partially or completely account for outcome differences between non-biological-parent and other family structures. Further, boys and girls in non-biological-parent families appear to fare similarly. Finally, measurement problems and their implications are discussed.

Key Words: child well-being, family structure, measurement error, non-biological-parent families.

In the past few decades, American families have experienced dramatic structural changes. Consequently, a large number of American children are living in various forms of nontraditional families. Although a substantial amount of family research has carefully examined children's lives in single-parent and stepparent households, much less research attention has been given to children living in households in which both biological parents are absent. Lack of attention to this special group of children is problematic from both theoretical and practical perspectives. Theoretically, households with neither biological parent present (hereafter referred to as non-biological-parent households) provide a unique opportunity for social scientists to examine the crucial roles of biological parents in children's socialization process. Practically, approximately 2.7 million (or 3.7% of all) American children under 18 lived in non-biological-parent households in 1996 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996). The well-being of such a large subgroup of children merits close investigation.

Using the first wave of the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS), the current study systematically examines various domains of adolescents' lives in non-biological-parent families. Specifically, this study rigorously compares the levels of academic performance, psychological well-being, behavior problems, and deviance among adolescents in non-biological-parent families with those in two-biological-parent, single-mother, single-father, stepmother, and stepfather families. A special effort is made to cross-check and verify students' family structure with information drawn from both student and parent surveys of the NELS. The current study also examines whether variation in child outcomes exists between kin and nonkin households. Furthermore, the study compares the levels of financial, human, cultural, and social resources in various types of households. In such comparisons, efforts are also made to enhance measures of family resources by using only the information provided by the parent or guardian who actually lives with the adolescent. More importantly, the study examines the extent to which differences in family resources account for possible differences in various child outcomes between non-biological-parent and other families. Finally, the study also elucidates whether boys and girls fare differently in different family structures.


Characteristics of Children in Non-Biological-Parent Families

The U.S. Census Bureau periodically estimates the percentage of children living in non-biological-parent households with its two nationally representative surveys, Current Population Survey (CPS) and Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). On the basis of the latest SIPP estimates, approximately 3.7% (2,645,000) of American children under age 18 lived in non-biological-parent households in 1996. Racial variation is large, ranging from 2.1% to 2.6%, 4.3%, and 7.9% for Asian, White, Hispanic, and African American children, respectively. In addition to race, children's age also appears to be related to the likelihood of living in non-biological-parent households, with children between 15 and 17 years of age more than twice as likely to live in such households as children under 5 years old (6. …

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