Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families

Article excerpt

Cohabitation is a family form that increasingly includes children. We use the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to assess the well-being of adolescents in cohabiting parent stepfamilies (N = 13,231). Teens living with cohabiting stepparents often fare worse than teens living with two biological married parents. Adolescents living in cohabiting stepfamilies experience greater disadvantage than teens living in married stepfamilies. Most of these differences, however, are explained by socioeconomic circumstances. Teenagers living with single unmarried mothers are similar to teens living with cohabiting stepparents; exceptions include greater delinquency and lower grade point averages experienced by teens living with cohabiting stepparents. Yet mother's marital history explains these differences. Our results contribute to our understanding of cohabitation and debates about the importance of marriage for children.

Key Words: adolescence, child well-being, cohabitation, family structure, marriage, stepfamilies.

An extensive literature exists that examines the importance of family structure (defined by marital status) for child well-being. Marital status acts as an indicator of the potential number of caretakers and may imply certain characteristics or qualities of the child's family life. This emphasis on marital status was perhaps more appropriate when relatively few children lived in cohabiting unions. Recent estimates indicate that two fifths of children are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting parent family (Bumpass & Lu, 2000), and 41% of cohabiting unions have children present (Fields & Casper, 2000). Despite this shift in children's experience in cohabitation, research on the implications of cohabitation for children's lives is relatively sparse.

In this paper we examine the well-being of adolescents in cohabiting stepparent families. We use the term cohabiting stepfamily to indicate living with one biological parent and the parent's partner (cohabiting stepfamily). We address three key questions in this paper. First, do teenagers in cohabiting stepparent families have similar academic and behavioral outcomes as teenagers living with two married biological parents? We begin with this question because over half of the children in the United States live with two married biological parents (Fields, 2001), and most research on family structure contrasts how children in specific family types fare compared with children living with married, two-biological-parent families. Second, do children residing with cohabiting stepparents fare better or worse than children living with single mothers? We focus on children living with unmarried mothers and determine how their cohabitation status influences child well-being. Third, do adolescents in cohabiting stepfather families fare as well as adolescents living in married stepfather families? We test whether children living with stepfathers fare better when their mother is married, rather than cohabiting. For each question, we evaluate whether the effects of parental cohabitation are explained by socioeconomic circumstances, parenting, and family instability.

This paper builds on prior research and moves beyond previous work in several key ways. First, by employing a large data source (National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), our analyses are based on a relatively large number of adolescents in cohabiting stepfather families. Second, the rich nature of the data allows us to include potentially important factors that represent family processes and may help account for some observed effects of family structure. Third, we are not limited to a single indicator of well-being and focus on multiple measures of well-being that are appropriate for teenagers. Finally, to better understand the implications of cohabitation on child well-being, we focus on family-type comparisons based on similar household structure (stepfather presence; cohabiting stepfather vs. …

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