According to a report in the Jan. 25 issue of The Lancet, children who are raised in households with only one parent are more likely to suffer health problems, such as mental illness and suicide risk, than children raised by two parents.
Other experts, however, find the study to be overly simplistic, lumping all one-parent households into the same category.
"Divorce research stopped considering divorce to be all the same in the early 1970s," says Arnold Stolberg, a professor of psychology and director of doctoral training in clinical child psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "They're not looking at subtleties within the home: How often did the child have to change schools? Did you lose your peer group? Could you not be on the basketball team anymore?"
Single-parent households are becoming an increasingly common feature of modern life. According to background information in the study, in 1999, one-quarter of all Swedish 17-year-olds had experienced their parents' separation.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there were 12 million single-parent families in the United States in 2000. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of single mothers increased from 3 million to 10 million, while the number of single fathers rose from 393,000 to 2 million.
Research on the effect of this phenomenon on children has been contradictory. While some earlier reports indicated that separation or divorce only had short-term effects, more recent research suggests the effect can be more lasting.
Here, the researchers looked at death statistics and hospital admission records between 1991 and 1998 for more than 65,000 children in single-parent households and more than 920,000 children in households with two parents.
After adjusting for other factors, children with a lone parent were found to be twice as likely to have a psychiatric disease compared to their two-parent counterparts. They were also at double the risk for suicide attempts and for alcohol-related diseases. The chances of drug abuse were three times as high among girls and four times as high among boys in single-parent households. Boys in single-parent households were more likely than girls to develop psychiatric and narcotics-related problems and were also more likely to die of any cause.
The alcohol and drug findings are not surprising. "A lot of alcohol and drug-related issues are mediated by the fact that, in single-parent homes, the level of supervision is not the same," says Bruce Copeland, a clinical child psychologist in Bethesda, Md. "Usually, single parents are so overwhelmed with working and trying to survive that there's no backup and these kids get monitored a lot less."
There were no differences with respect to the sex of the head of the household, says lead author Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft of the Centre for Epidemiology at the National Board of Health and Welfare in Stockholm, Sweden. However, most of the household studies were headed by females, so the information on male heads-of-households is limited.
Lack of financial resources loomed as the real culprit behind the differences. "Single-parent households are often less wealthy," explains Weitoft. "We know that health is worse in economically disadvantaged groups. This applies to children as well as adults."
It's not clear if these findings from Sweden can be extrapolated to other countries that have different family structures and economic systems.
It's also not clear what other factors might be underlying the differences highlighted here.
Recent research conduct by Stolberg and his colleagues found that two factors accounted for more than half of the variation in children's and young adult's adjustment: involvement of both parents in the child's life and cooperation between the parents. This was true regardless of whether the parents were married, divorced or separated. "Marital status was never significant," says Stolberg, who also counsels parents in high-conflict divorces.
Ultimately, it's all about the kid. "It's not to say that divorce is not an extraordinarily difficult event even for high-functioning families and children," Stolberg says. "But if we know co-parenting interactions and involvement account for half of the adjustment of children and young adults, we'd better teach parents how to work together."