Child Indicators Research

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 127–147

Family Structure and Children’s Living Conditions. A Comparative Study of 24 Countries



This study uses large-scale cross-national data from 24 countries to describe the living conditions of children residing with a single mother as compared with children who live with two original parents. Three central areas are studied: children’s social support, health, and material resources. The data are derived from the international WHO study Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) of 2001/02. The survey includes nationally representative samples of school pupils of 11, 13, and 15 years of age in countries in Europe and North America and in Israel. After relevant selections, total n = 95,335. The general finding is that children in single-mother households have lower social support from parents, poorer health, and smaller material resources than children living with two original parents. The general tendency is rather similar across a large number of countries although more differences are found in some countries and fewer in others. There is no clear pattern regarding how the association with family type varies between countries, for example, according to the share of single-mother households, by welfare state regime, or in relation to single parents’ employment rates.


Children Family structure Single-mother household Cross-national 


  1. Amato, P. R. (2000). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1269–1287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Amato, P. R. & Keith, B. (1991). Parental divorce and the well-being of children: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 26–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andersen, A., Krølner, R., Currie, C., Dallago, L., Due, P., Richter, M., et al. (2008). High agreement on family affluence between children’s and parents’ reports: international study of 11-year-old children. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 62(12), 1092–1094.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andersson, G. (2002a). Children’s experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries. Demographic Research, 7(7), 343–364. Available at: Scholar
  5. Andersson, G. (2002b). Dissolution of unions in Europe: a comparative overview. Paper presented at the Conference on Divorce in a Cross-National Perspective: A European Network, Florence, 14–15 November 2002,Google Scholar
  6. Astone, N. M. & McLanahan, S. S. (1991). Family structure, parental practices and high-school completion. American Sociological Review, 56(3), 309–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beaujot, R., & Liu, J. (2002). Children, social assistance and outcomes: cross national comparisons. Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper No. 304.Google Scholar
  8. Biblarz, T. J. & Gottainer, G. (2000). Family structure and children’s success. A comparison of widowed and divorced single-mother families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 533–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Blossfeld, H.-P., de Rose, A., Hoem, J. M., & Rohwer, G. (1995). Education, modernization, and the risk of marriage disruption in Sweden, West Germany, and Italy. In K. Oppenheim Mason & A.-M. Jensen (Eds.), Gender and family change in industrialized countries (pp. 200–222). Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  10. Bolger, K. E., Patterson, C. J., Thompson, W. W., & Kupersmidt, J. B. (1995). Psychosocial adjustment among children experiencing persistent and intermittent family economic hardship. Child Development, 66, 1107–1129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bradbury, B. & Jäntti, M. (2001). Child poverty across the industrialised world: evidence from the Luxembourg Income Study. In K. Vleminckx & T. M. Smeeding (Eds.), Child well-being, child poverty and child policy in modern nations. What do we know? (pp. 11–32). Bristol: Policy.Google Scholar
  12. Bremberg, S. (2002). Social differences in ill-health among children and adolescents in Sweden—an overview. Stockholm: Statens folkhälsoinstitut. Report 2002:40.Google Scholar
  13. Bull, T. & Mittelmark, M. B. (2009). Work life and mental well-being of single and non-single working mothers in Scandinavia. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 37, 562–568.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carlson, M. J. & Corcoran, M. E. (2001). Family structure and children’s behavioral and cognitive outcomes. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(3), 779–792.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chapple, S. (2009). Child well-being and sole-parent family structure in the OECD: An Analysis. OECD Social Employment and Migration Working Papers. Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  16. Cohen, S. & Syme, S. L. (eds). (1985). Social support and health. Orlando: Academic.Google Scholar
  17. Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology Supplement, 94, S95–S120.Google Scholar
  18. Crosier, T., Butterworth, P., & Rodgers, B. (2007). Mental health problems among single and partnered mothers. The role of financial hardship and social support. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiol, 42, 6–13. Europe.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Currie, C., Nic Gabhainn, S., Godeau, E., & the International HBSC Network Coordinating Committee. (2009). The health behaviour in school-aged children (HBSC) study: origins, concept, history and development 1982–2008. International Journal of Public Health, 54, S131–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. de Lange, M., Dronkers, J., & Wolbers, M. (2008). Family Forms and Children’s Educational Performance in a Cross-Comparative Perspective: Effects of School’s Resources and Family Policies of Modern Societies. Paper presented at the European Divorce Network Meeting, 18–19 September 2008, Oslo, Norway.Google Scholar
  21. Dornbusch, S. M., et al. (1985). Single parents, extended households, and the control of adolescents. Child Development, 56, 326–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Downey, G. & Coyne, J. C. (1990). Children of depressed parents: an integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 108(1), 50–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Due, P., Lynch, J., Holstein, B., & Modvig, J. (2003). Socioeconomic health inequalities among a nationally representative sample of Danish adolescents: the role of different types of social relations. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 692–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Ferrarini, T. (2003). Parental leave institutions in eighteen post-war welfare states. Stockholm: Swedish Institute for Social Research. Doctoral dissertation no 58.Google Scholar
  26. Fritzell, S., Ringbäck Weitoft, G., Fritzell, J., & Burström, B. (2007). From macro to micro. The health of Swedish lone mothers during changing economic and social circumstances. Social Science and Medicine, 65, 2474–2488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gähler, M. (1998). Life after divorce. Economic, social and psychological well-being among Swedish adults and children following family dissolution. Stockholm: Swedish Institute for Social Research. Dissertation series no 32.Google Scholar
  28. Garib, G., Martin Garcia, T., & Dronkers, J. (2007). Are the effects of different family forms on children’s educational performance related to the demographic chacarteristics and family policies of modern societies? In Moerbeek, H., Niehof, A., & van Ophem, J. (eds.), Changing Families and Their Lifestyles (pp. 27–50), Mansholt publication series, Volume 5, Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  29. Goode, W. J. (1962). Marital satisfaction and instability. A cross-cultural class analysis of divorce rates. In R. Bendix & S. M. Lipset (Eds.), Class, status, and power. Social stratification in comparative perspective (pp. 377–387). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  30. Gunnarsson, L. & Cochran, M. (1990). The social networks of single parents: Sweden and the United States. In M. Cochran, M. Larner, D. Riley, L. Gunnarsson & C. R. Henderson Jr. (Eds.), Extending families: the social networks of parents and their children (pp. 105–115). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hampden-Thompson, G. & Pong, S.-L. (2005). Does family policy environment moderate the effect of single parenthood on children’s academic achievement? A study of 14 European countries. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 36(2), 227–248.Google Scholar
  32. Härkönen, J. & Dronkers, J. (2006). Stability and change in the educational gradient of divorce. A comparison of seventeen countries. European Sociological Review, 22(5), 501–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Holstein, B., et al. (2009). Socio-economic inequality in multiple health complaints among adolescents: international comparative study in 37 countries. International Journal of Public Health, 54, S260–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Iversen, T., Rosenbluth, F., & Soskice, D. (2005). Divorce and the gender division of labor in comparative perspective. Social Politics, 12(2), 216–242.Google Scholar
  35. Jonsson, J. O. & Gähler, M. (1997). Family dissolution, family reconstitution, and children’s educational careers: recent evidence for Sweden. Demography, 34(2), 277–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jonsson, J. O. & Östberg, V. (2001). Barns och ungdomars välfärd [The welfare of children and young people], SOU 2001:55. Stockholm: Fritzes.Google Scholar
  37. Jonsson, J. O. & Östberg, V. (2004). Resurser och levnadsförhållanden bland ekonomiskt utsatta 10-18-åringar. Analys av Barn-LNU och Barn-ULF [Resources and living conditions among economically deprived 10–18 year olds: Analyses of Child-LNU and Child-ULF]. Chapter 5 in the report Ekonomiskt utsatta barn [Economically deprived children], Ds 2004:41. Stockholm: Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.Google Scholar
  38. Kalmijn, M. (2007). Explaining cross-national differences in marriage, cohabitation, and divorce in Europe, 1990–2000. Population Studies, 61(3), 243–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kalmijn, M. & Broese van Groenou, M. (2005). Differential effects of divorce on social integration. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(4), 455–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kalmijn, M. & Uunk, W. (2007). Regional value differences in Europe and the social consequences of divorce: a test of the stigmatization hypothesis. Social Science Research, 36, 447–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kitson, G. C. & Morgan, L. A. (1990). The multiple consequences of divorce: a decade review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 913–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kunz, J., Villeneuve, C., & Garfinkel, I. (2001). Child support among selected OECD countries: a comparative analysis. In K. Vleminckx & T. M. Smeeding (Eds.), Child well-being, child poverty, and child policy in modern societies (pp. 485–499). Bristol: Policy.Google Scholar
  43. Låftman, S. B. & Östberg, V. (2006). The pros and cons of social relations. An analysis of adolescents’ health complaints. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 611–623.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) Key Figures, (accessed on 18 March 2009).
  45. Mahler, P., & Winkelmann, R. (2004). Single motherhood and (Un)equal educational opportunities: evidence for Germany, IZA Disucssion Paper 1391.Google Scholar
  46. Marks, G. (2006). Family size, family type and student achievement: cross-national differences and the role of socioeconomic and school factors. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 37(1), 1–24.Google Scholar
  47. Milardo, R. (1987). Changes in social networks of women and men following divorce: a review. Journal of Family Issues, 8, 78–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moreno, C., et al. (2009). Cross-national associations between parent and peer communication and psychological complaints. International Journal of Public Health, 54, S235–S242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Morgan, S. L. & Sørensen, A. B. (1999). Parental networks, social closure, and mathemathics learning: a test of Coleman’s social capital explanation of school effects. American Sociological Review, 64, 661–681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Morgan, S. L. & Todd, J. J. (2009). Intergenerational closure and academic achievement in high school: a new evaluation of Coleman’s conjecture. Sociology of Education, 82, 267–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. OECD. (2003). OECD employment outlook 2003. Towards more and better jobs. Paris: OECD.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Olsson, E. (2007). The economic side of social relations. Household poverty, adolescents’ own resources and peer relations. European Sociological Review, 23(4), 471–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Östberg, V., Alfvén, G., & Hjern, A. (2006). Living conditions and psychosomatic complaints in Swedish schoolchildren. Acta Paediatrica, 95(8), 929–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Pedersen, M., Granado Alcón, M. C., & Moreno Rodriguez, C. (2004). Family and health. In C. Currie, C. Roberts, A. Morgan, R. Smith, W. Settertoboulte, O. Samdal, et al. (Eds.), Young people’s health in context. Health behaviour in school-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2001/02 survey, health policy for children and adolescents, No. 4 (pp. 173–178). Copenhagen: WHO Europe.Google Scholar
  55. Pong, S.-L., Dronkers, J., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2003). Family policies and children’s school achievement in single- versus two-parent families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65, 681–699.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pryor, J. & Rodgers, B. (2001). Children in changing families. Life after parental separation. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  57. Raeymaeckers, P., Dewilde, C., Snoeckx, L., & Mortelmans, D. (2008). The influence of formal and informal support systems on the labour supply of divorced mothers. European Societies, 10(3), 453–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Raschke, H. J. (1987). Divorce. In M. B. Sussman & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (pp. 597–624). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  59. Ringbäck Weitoft, G., Hjern, A., & Rosén, M. (2004). School’s out! Why earlier among children of lone parents? International Journal of Social Welfare, 13(2), 134–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Roberts, C., Tynjälä, J., Currie, D., & King, M. (2004). Annex 1. Methods. In C. Currie, C. Roberts, A. Morgan, R. Smith, W. Settertoboulte, O. Samdal, et al. (Eds.), Young people’s health in context. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2001/02 survey, health policy for children and adolescents, No. 4 (pp. 217–227). Copenhagen: WHO Europe.Google Scholar
  61. Roberts, C., Currie, C., Samdal, O., Currie, D., Smith, R., & Maes, L. (2007). Measuring the health and health behaviours of adolescents through cross-national survey research: recent developments in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study. Journal of Public Health, 15, 179–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sandefur, G. D. & Wells, T. (1999). Does family structure really influence educational attainment? Social Science Research, 28, 331–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. SCB (2009). Barn- och familjestatistik [Child and family statistics], webpage of Statistics Sweden, accessed on 26 September 2009:
  64. Schiller, K. S., Khmelkov, V. T., & Wang, X.-Q. (2002). Economic development and the effects of family characteristics on mathematics achievement. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 64, 730–742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Shkolnikov, V. M., Andreev, E. M., Houle, F. R., & Vaupel, J. W. (2007). The concentration of reproduction of women in Europe and the United States. Population and Development Review, 33(1), 67–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Sobotka, T. (2008). Overview chapter 6: the diverse faces of the second demographic transition in Europe. Demographic Research, 19(8): 171–224,
  67. Ström, S. (2003). Unemployment and families: a review of research. Social Service Review, 77, 399–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Torsheim, T., Välimaa, R., & Danielson, M. (2004). Health and well-being. In C. Currie, C. Roberts, A. Morgan, R. Smith, W. Settertoboulte, O. Samdal, et al. (Eds.), Young people’s health in context. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2001/02 survey, health policy for children and adolescents, No. 4 (pp. 55–62). Copenhagen: WHO Europe.Google Scholar
  69. Uunk, W. (2004). The economic consequences of divorce for women in the European union: the impact of welfare state arrangements. European Journal of Population, 20, 251–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Vos, A. E. (2009). Falling fertility rates: new challenges to the European welfare state. Socio-Economic Review, 7, 485–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Voydanoff, P. (1990). Economic distress and family relations—a review of the 80s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52(4), 1099–1115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. White, L. & Rogers, S. J. (2000). Economic circumstances and family outcomes: a review of the 1990 s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(4), 1035–1051.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Whitehead, M., Burström, B., & Diderichsen, F. (2000). Social policies and the pathways to inequalities in health: a comparative analysis of lone mothers in Britain and Sweden. Social Science and Medicine, 50, 255–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wu, Z., Hou, F., & Schimmele, C. M. (2008). Family structure and children’s psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Family Issues, 29, 1600–1624.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Swedish Institute for Social ResearchStockholmSweden

Personalised recommendations