Family instability hits children hard, boys especially

Family instability hits boys harder than girls and has double poverty’s influence on childhood aggression

By Sara S. McLanahan and , | November 2015 

Schools should focus on sensitive treatment for the dominant legacies of family instability – disruptive behaviour and anxiety.

Increasing family instability, caused by divorce and remarriage (as well as the formation and dissolution of cohabiting unions), is having a major influence on children’s social-emotional development, especially among boys, according to latest research.

Education policy should address the impacts of instability and expand beyond its focus on improving test scores, which, for many children, is too narrow an approach for securing long-term success. It must also tackle the mix of aggression, anxiety and other long-term mental health problems, particularly among boys, that can be dominant legacies of family instability.

“Early support would be better than coming down hard on misbehaving children, particularly boys, which can turn them against school so they fall behind, leading to damaging spill over effects.”

These difficulties undermine development of so-called “non-cognitive skills,” such as the ability to pay attention and persist with a task, as well as self-confidence and the ability to get along with peers, which may be just as important as test scores in the long run. A policy shift is urgent because recent increases in family instability have put more and more children at risk of missing out on developing important social-emotional skills.

These recommendations spring from our research in the United States examining the causal effects of different types of family instability on children. We found that divorce and separation play a limited role in shaping children’s cognitive abilities, such as language and mathematical skills, which are tested in conventional school examinations. Maternal education and poverty are much more important in this area. In contrast, family instability plays a much bigger role than mothers’ education or poverty in the development of “social-emotional” skills. For example, family instability has twice as much influence as poverty does on whether children develop aggressive behavior. It is on par with poverty in causing childhood anxiety and shyness.

Our findings show that losing a biological father when parents break up is generally worse for children’s development than the arrival of a stepfather in their lives. The breakup of a two-parent family also typically has a more negative emotional impact for white children, whereas the entrance of a stepparent has a more negative impact for Hispanic children.

The significant role that mental health or social-emotional skills play in individual success is becoming better understood. For example, the U.S. Perry Preschool program for three- and four-year-olds from disadvantaged families was designed in the 1960s to improve “cognitive” scores in language and math tests. It was initially deemed a failure because early gains in test scores faded over time. However, when researchers looked at these children 40 years later, they found that those who participated in the program were more likely to finish high school than their peers and more likely to have positive outcomes in adulthood, notably more stable relationships and less criminality. Many people now believe that the program, which was designed to enhance cognitive skills, actually affected children’s social-emotional skills. This seems to have conferred lifelong benefits that perhaps outweigh those that might have sprung from the sought-after but unachieved higher test scores.

All this means that policy makers need to consider how to better prevent children from being handicapped by emotional or behavioural problems such as aggression, shyness and anxiety. Children should be supported properly as they go through the now common experience of family instability. Teachers should know more about the part that family disruption can play in childhood difficulties. Schools should have mental health counsellors and identify children at risk. When children have a fever or a broken arm, they receive expert help. Likewise, schools should be sensitive to how children typically react to family breakdown and reorganization. Early support would be better than coming down hard on misbehaving children, particularly boys, which can turn them against school so they fall behind, leading to damaging spill-over effects.

It is important to understand the role of gender in these issues. Emotional wellbeing appears to be much more compromised by family instability among boys than it is among girls. The impact of instability on “non-cognitive” skills is two to three times greater for boys, we found.

The reasons are not well understood. It may be that the loss of a biological father is more important to boys than to girls. Possibly, the loss is a marker for a lot of other sources of instability – new men moving in and out, the arrival of half-siblings, a more complex household – to which boys may be more sensitive.

Whatever the reasons, it is worth asking whether this greater emotional sensitivity among boys helps explain their increasing difficulties in school. The gender gap between girls’ and boys’ achievement in school, which has opened up in the US and other Western countries since about 1980, has coincided with a great deal of family instability.


 Lee D & McLanahan S (2015), Family structure transitions and child development: Instability, selection, and population heterogeneity, American Sociological Review, 80.4

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