Parent/child Relationships in Single-Parent Families

By Walker, Lawrence J.; Hennig, Karl H. | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Parent/child Relationships in Single-Parent Families


Walker, Lawrence J., Hennig, Karl H., Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


Parent/Child Relationships in Single - Parent Families

Abstract

The growing number of single - parent families has not been matched by an increase in our understanding of their family functioning. This study examined parent/child perceptions of relationships and actual interactions as a function of family structure. Participants were 28 Grade 10 adolescents and 28 parents, representing matched groups of mothers and fathers from one - and two - parent families. They completed a questionnaire regarding the quality of their relationship, were interviewed about their conflicts, and then participated in a parent/child discussion session. Both children and parents in single - parent families were found to be somewhat ambivalent in their relationships, with both greater intimacy and heightened conflict than evidenced in two - parent families, as well as less adequate ego functioning when dealing with conflicts. No support was found, however, for the commonly held notion that children in single - parent families fare better in the custody of same - sex parents.

The changes in family law that occurred around 1970 in North America heralded dramatic shifts in family structure, particularly a substantial increase in single - parent families (Scott, 1993). While considerable research attention has focussed on children's development and parents' child - rearing in single - mother households, there is as yet little understanding of family functioning in single - father households (for a review of the limited extant research, see Hanson, 1988). This lack of attention to single - father families is surprising given that it is the fastest growing type of family structure, now representing over 15% of Canadian and American single - parent households (Larson, Goltz, & Hobart, 1994; Meyer & Garasky, 1993). Previous research on single - father families has been limited by: (a) a focus on demographic characteristics, reasons for custody, household activities, etc., rather than on parent/child relationships; (b) a frequent reliance on single methods of data collection, usually self - reports, rather than on multiple methods, including behavioural observations; (c) a focus either on parents or children rather than both; and (d) a failure to include appropriate comparison groups (i.e., single - mother and two - parent families) that are matched on relevant variables. This last limitation is particularly noteworthy because the economic and life circumstances of single - parent families are often considerably different from those of two - parent families (Scott, 1993), and it may be these variables that are the predominant influence on children's development, not family status per se. Amato and Keith (1991), however, argued that the lower well - being of children in single - mother than in two - parent families could not be completely explained by economic disadvantage. Single fathers are often better educated than single mothers, have higher status and higher paying occupations, and a higher rate of employment (Hanson, 1985; Larson et al., 1994; Meyer & Garasky, 1993) - incidentally, all circumstances that contribute to their seeking and receiving custody of children. As well, boys slightly outnumber girls in single - father households, whereas the gender ratio is about equal (because of the larger numbers) in single - mother households (Greif, 1985; Meyer & Garasky, 1993).

The purpose of the present study was to compare parent/child relationships - both perceptions and actual interactions - across family structures, using a sample composed of matched groups of single - and two - parent families. In order to provide a context for our study, a brief review of previous research on single - parent families may be helpful. There are two relevant lines of research: one focussing on individuals' perceptions of parent/child relationships and family functioning, the other focusing on individuals' behavior and interactions. …

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