Family structure and childhood mental disorders: new findings from Australia
Many children now live in non-traditional families—including one-parent, blended, and step families. While a substantial body of international evidence indicates that these children display poorer cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes than children living in traditional families, research on childhood mental disorders is scarce. This report provides new evidence of the relationships between family structure and childhood mental disorders in an under-researched context, Australia.
We use recent, nationally representative data on children aged 4–17 from Young Minds Matter, the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Well-being (N = 6310). Mental disorders were assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children—Version IV and included social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorder.
Compared to children living in original families, children in one-parent, blended, and step families experienced a higher prevalence of mental disorders. Amongst children whose parents separated, the time since separation was not statistically significantly related to the prevalence of mental disorders.
Although we are unable to assess causality, our findings highlight the strength of the association between family structure and child and adolescent mental health. They also stress the need for programs to support children, parents, and families in non-traditional family types to reduce mental health inequalities in childhood and later life.