Family Structure Experiences and Child Socioemotional Development During the First Nine Years of Life: Examining Heterogeneity by Family Structure at Birth

Abstract

A vast amount of literature has documented negative associations between family instability and child development, with the largest associations being in the socioemotional (behavioral) domain. Yet, prior work has paid limited attention to differentiating the role of the number, types, and sequencing of family transitions that children experience, as well as to understanding potential heterogeneity in these associations by family structure at birth. We use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study and hierarchical linear models to examine associations of family structure states and transitions with children’s socioemotional development during the first nine years of life. We pay close attention to the type and number of family structure transitions experienced and examine whether associations differ depending on family structure at birth. For children born to cohabiting or noncoresident parents, we find little evidence that subsequent family structure experiences are associated with socioemotional development. For children born to married parents, we find associations between family instability and poorer socioemotional development. However, this largely reflects the influence of parental breakup; we find little evidence that socioemotional trajectories differ for children with various family structure experiences subsequent to their parents’ breakup.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Graham (2009) and Johnson and Young (2011) recommended using all cases—including those with imputed outcome data—in statistical analyses. As such, we conducted supplemental analyses using fully imputed data. We also conducted supplemental analyses using listwise deletion (complete case analyses). Results from these supplemental analyses are available from the authors upon request. Whereas there were some differences in the size and significance of estimates produced by each strategy, the direction and overall pattern of each set of estimates from the supplemental analyses were quite consistent with those from our primary analyses. Our overall conclusions would not have changed regardless of which strategy was used.

  2. 2.

    We conducted a comparison of descriptive statistics for all variables used in our analyses based on (1) complete case data (listwise deletion), (2) fully imputed data, and (3) imputed data excluding cases for which outcomes were imputed. For the most part, the characteristics of the three samples are quite similar, and this is particularly true when comparing the complete case data with the fully imputed data. The most notable differences are that cases included in our analysis sample had slightly lower levels of behavior problems and slightly higher rates of stable biological-father family structure both between birth and age 3 and between ages 3 and 9. These results are available from the authors upon request.

  3. 3.

    The specific items included in these three subscales vary depending on the child’s age. Those listed here are drawn from the measures when the child was approximately age 5.

  4. 4.

    Children who were observed transitioning directly from one type of two-parent family to another across waves were coded as also having experienced a transition into a single-mother family.

  5. 5.

    Again, children who were observed transitioning directly from one type of two-parent family to another across waves were coded as also having experienced a transition into a single-mother family.

  6. 6.

    Coefficients for the full sets of control variables for Tables 3 and 4 are available from the authors upon request. On the whole, the covariates predict behavior problems in expected ways, such that social and economic disadvantage are associated with greater child behavior problems.

  7. 7.

    At the age 5 interview, mothers were asked to provide information about romantic relationships that they had formed and dissolved between the age 3 and age 5 interviews. These data suggest that very few mothers lived with more than one partner between those survey waves (Bzostek et al. 2012). Nonetheless, we have likely underestimated the number of transitions that some children experienced.

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Acknowledgments

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is funded by NICHD grant numbers R01HD36916, R01HD39135, and R01HD40421, as well as a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies. This research was supported by NICHD Grant No. K01HD054421 (to Berger) and by the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy Research Program (for Bzostek), as well as by funding from the Institute for Research on Poverty and the Waisman Center (NICHD Grant No. P30 HD03352) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. We are grateful to Anne Solaz, Laurent Toulemon, seminar participants at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (Institut national d'études démographiques; INED), and participants at the 2012 American Sociological Association and 2013 Population Association of America annual meetings for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Sharon H. Bzostek.

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Bzostek, S.H., Berger, L.M. Family Structure Experiences and Child Socioemotional Development During the First Nine Years of Life: Examining Heterogeneity by Family Structure at Birth. Demography 54, 513–540 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-017-0563-5

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Keywords

  • Family structure
  • Family instability
  • Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study
  • Repartnering
  • Child well-being