Experts have previously suggested it was better for children from broken homes to have a step-parent, because it offers greater financial stability and another authority figure. However, children also face the stress of a ‘new family structure’, according to Norwegian researchers.
Children of divorced couples who live with a step-parent are at increased risk of mental health problems, a study has found.
Teenagers living with a stepfather or stepmother were more troubled than those who split their time between parents.
They reported more symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression and dishonesty, and more bullying at school.
The study compared more than 7,700 teenagers, who lived with either single parents, step-parents, between their parents in joint custody or with both parents in a traditional family. The results showed children living with a stepfather had the worst mental health, although living with a single parent was not significantly better for the child.
Stepfathers faring worse than stepmothers may be explained by evidence that men monitor children less and have a generally more uninvolved parenting style. The study results suggested the best arrangements for children if parents did separate was shared custody. Children in a family with a step-parent had significantly more adjustment problems than those in nuclear families and those who spent time living with both parents.
The authors from the Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Welfare in Bergen, Norway, wrote: ‘An interpretation of these findings is that possible benefits of introducing a step-parent to the family (eg. increased economical and parental resources) might be counteracted by the stress related to establishing a new family structure.’
The researchers established 16 to 19 year-olds’ mental health with questions including how worried they were, if they were often downhearted or tearful, were bad-tempered, restless or often lied or cheated. A score from this Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire was compared to their living arrangements.
The resulting poor scores for children with step-families suggested remarriage did not alleviate the negative effects of growing up with a single parent.
Around one in ten families in Australia (13.3%) are step-families with at least one child living in the house, but little research has been done on how this set-up affects children. The study, in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, showed children with step-parents felt better off financially than those with single parents, but this did not appear to be reflected in their mental health.
Lead author Sondre Nilsen wrote: ‘It could be that certain factors associated with better child adjustment and with living in joint physical custody (such as better family economy, less conflict between parents etc.) lead them to report lower levels of mental health problems.’
- Australia Bureau of Statistics, Family Characteristics and Transitions 2006-07, 2008: Australia Bureau of Statistics (4442.0)
- Moon, M, 2011: The Effects of Divorce on Children: Married and Divorced Parents’ Perspectives, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. Vol. 52, Iss. 5
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