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Family structure and childhood mental disorders: new findings from Australia

Abstract

Purpose

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Conclusions

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.

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Notes

  1. We undertook a systematic search for literature on the links between family structure and childhood mental disorders in academic repositories (e.g. Scopus, Web of Knowledge). The search terms we used included permutations of the terms ‘anxiety’, ‘attention deficit’, ‘CBCL’, ‘depression’, ‘depressive symptoms’, ‘Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children’, ‘disorder’, ‘disruptive behaviour’, ‘distress’, ‘hyperactivity’ ‘mental health’, ‘social phobia’ in combination with the terms ‘family structure’, ‘family breakdown’, ‘family instability’, ‘parental separation’, ‘divorce’, and ‘family type’. We searched within the articles’ title, abstract and keywords. The systematic search yielded 186 items. Upon closer inspection, a vast majority of these did not meet the necessary criteria. In most cases, this was because the studies examined broad measures of socio-emotional outcomes, such as the SDQ and the CBCL. Only the 11 papers we cite here were confirmed to assess the links between family structure and childhood mental disorders using diagnostic interviews or equivalent clinical assessments.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Rebecca Vos for research assistance. This research was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course (project number CE140100027). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council. This study uses data from Young Minds Matter which was funded by the Australian Government Department of Health. Data collection was undertaken by Roy Morgan Research. The authors would like to thank the 6310 families who gave their time to participate in the survey, Rajni Walia, Gerry Bardsley, the team at Roy Morgan Research, and the Survey Reference Group for their input into the design and conduct of the survey.

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Correspondence to Sarah E. Johnson.

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Ethical approval

The research protocol for Young Minds Matter was approved by the Australian Government Department of Health Human Research Ethics Committee, and The University of Western Australia Human Research Ethics Committee. The protocol for this study was approved by The University of Western Australia Human Research Ethics Committee. All research has been undertaken in accordance with Australia’s National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research.

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Perales, F., Johnson, S.E., Baxter, J. et al. Family structure and childhood mental disorders: new findings from Australia. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 52, 423–433 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-016-1328-y

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Keywords

  • Family structure
  • Parental separation
  • Childhood
  • Mental disorders
  • Australia