The present study revisits the assumption in American culture, based in “family privilege,” that children fare better in two-parent households by longitudinally examining associations between family structure, process, and adolescent behavior.
Societal assumptions and cross-sectional research suggest that there is a difference in child adjustment across varying family structures. Relatedly, the family process literature emphasizes the importance of parent–child relationship quality in addition to family structure on child adjustment.
We utilized a longitudinal, prospective design that assessed family structures on nine occasions covering a 12-year period beginning when the target child was 2 years of age for a large (N = 714), ethnically and racially diverse sample of low-income families. We examined the relation between self-reported, teacher-reported, and primary caregiver-reported adolescent disruptive and internalizing problem behavior across family structures and parent–child relationship quality.
Across seven identified family structures, adolescent behavior did not differ after accounting for middle-childhood adjustment and relevant contextual factors. However, consistent with family process models of child adjustment, positive parent–child relationship quality predicted lower rates of adolescent maladaptive behavior.
These findings serve to combat stigma related to family structures that deviate from married parents raising their children and highlight the need for interventions designed to foster positive parent–child relationships.
Policy makers and practitioners should aim to support efforts to foster positive parent–child relationships across types of family structures and refrain from promoting or discouraging the formations of specific family structure types.