Children’s early life experiences are important not only for their contemporary wellbeing, but also for their subsequent life outcomes as adolescents and adults. Research from developed countries has demonstrated that children in one-parent and reconstituted families have worse socio-emotional and behavioural functioning than children from ‘normative’ or ‘intact’ families. We use recent Australian data from a nationally representative birth cohort study to examine the associations between family structure and children’s socio-emotional and behavioural outcomes. We contribute to the literature in two ways: by testing whether previously established relationships in the US and the UK apply in Australia, and by deploying an innovative life course methodological approach that pays attention to the accumulation, patterning and timing of exposures to different family types during childhood. As in other countries, children in Australia who spend time in one-parent or reconstituted families experience more socio-emotional and behavioural problems than other children. Such differences disappear when accounting for socio-economic capital and maternal mental health. This suggests that providing additional income and mental health support to parents in vulnerable families may contribute to mitigating children’s socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties in Australia.
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Each of the 5 domains of the SDQ is calculated where there are at least 3 of 5 non-missing responses. Missing responses are imputed the mean of the non-missing items in that domain for the child. The overall SDQ score is calculated only where a valid score is present on all 5 domains.
Answers are not provided by the biological mother for 2.36 % of children (88 children). Of these, 1.85 % (n = 69) come from fathers who are main carers in a dual-parent family, 0.27 % (n = 10) come from primary carers who are neither fathers nor mothers (e.g., a grandparent), 0.19 % (n = 7) come from sole-parent fathers, and 0.05 % (n = 2) come from stepmothers.
Hardships asked about include ‘could not pay gas, electricity or telephone bills on time’, ‘could not pay the mortgage or rent payments on time’, ‘went without meals’, ‘were unable to heat or cool your home’, ‘pawned or sold something because you needed cash’, and ‘sought assistance from a welfare or community organisation’.
The other possible options are ‘reasonably comfortable’, ‘very comfortable’, and ‘prosperous’.
The other possible options are ‘fair condition’ and ‘well-kept, with good repair and exterior surface’.
SEIFA is calculated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) every five years using Census data. The index incorporates measures that capture different dimensions of socio-economic advantage/disadvantage, such as income, education, employment, and housing stress. Technical details on its construction can be found in Pink (2013).
The K6 scale (Kessler et al. 2002) captures non-specific psychological distress by asking respondents how often in the past 4 weeks they felt (i) ‘nervous’, (ii) ‘hopeless’, (iii) ‘restless or fidgety’, (iv) ‘so sad that nothing could cheer them up’, (v) ‘that everything was an effort’, and (vi) ‘worthless’. Potential answers are  ‘Never’,  ‘A little of the time’,  ‘Some of the time’,  ‘Most of the time’ and  ‘All of the time’. In LSAC, these are averaged into an index that ranges from 1 (best outcome) to 5 (worst outcome).
The overall mean SDQ in the sample (10.5) is consistent with normative data for Australia (Mellor 2005).
We treat vulnerable families as one big group. However, vulnerable families are heterogeneous and, where possible, studies have attempted to split them into one-parent families (i.e., families in which the child lives with one biological parent) and reconstituted families (i.e., families in which the child lives with one biological parent and his/her new partner) (see e.g., McMunn et al. 2001, Pearce et al. 2013). Here we lack the statistical power to establish this distinction across each of the time points that constitute children’s early life courses. Others before us have faced similar data-driven issues (see e.g., Fomby & Cherlin 2007). However, the numbers of children in one-parent (n = 374) and reconstituted families (n = 102) in sweep 3 of LSAC (without regard to their prior family history) were large enough to test whether any differences existed in their SDQ scores. As shown in Table 5 in the appendix, no such differences emerged. This is consistent with the findings from some previous empirical research (see e.g., McLanahan & Sandefur 1997, Coleman et al. 2000, Ginther & Pollak 2004, Amato 2005) and suggests that pooling one-parent and reconstituted families is an acceptable course of action.
The coefficients on the new model variables indicate that children who are female (β = ˗1.37, p < 0.001), non-Australian born relative to non-Indigenous Australian born (β = ˗2.38, p < 0.05), have older mothers (β = ˗0.09, p < 0.001), were breastfed by 6 months of age (β = 0.41, p < 0.1), and have mothers with degree-level education had lower SDQ scores, while children whose mothers experienced mental health issues during pregnancy (β = 1.33, p < 0.001) had higher SDQ scores, all else being equal. There were no statistically significant associations between socio-emotional and behavioural outcomes and the child being Indigenous Australian relative to non-Indigenous Australian (β = 0.54, p > 0.1), the child’s age in months (β = ˗0.00, p > 0.1), the child’s birthweight percentile (β = ˗0.00, p > 0.1), the number of gestation weeks (β = ˗0.00, p > 0.1), and the presence of siblings at sweep 1 (β = 0.12, p > 0.1).
Given the potential overlap across some of the model variables, we tested for potential collinearity using the variance inflation factor (VIF) (Belsley et al. 1980). Results of these tests yielded no evidence of multicollinearity, as indicated by VIF statistics below the value of 5.
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This research was supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course (project number CE140100027). This paper uses unit record data from Growing Up in Australia, the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. The study is conducted in partnership between the Department of Social Services (DSS), the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The findings and views reported in this paper are those of the author and should not be attributed to the ARC, DSS, AIFS or the ABS. The authors would like to thank Laura Dunstan for research assistance and participants at the 6th workshop on the Economics of Health and Wellbeing held on Yarra Glen, Victoria (Australia) in February 2015.
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Perales, F., O’Flaherty, M. & Baxter, J. Early Life Course Family Structure and Children’s Socio-Emotional and Behavioural Functioning: A View from Australia. Child Ind Res 9, 1003–1028 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-015-9356-9
- Child wellbeing
- Socio-emotional development
- Family structure
- Life course methods