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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  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.


  1. Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2000). Manual for the ASEBA preschool forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families.

  2. Amato, P. R. (1994). The implications of research findings on children in stepfamilies. In A. Booth & J. Dunn (Eds.), Stepfamilies: Who benefits? Who does not? (pp. 81–87). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

  3. Amato, P. R. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional wellbeing of the next generation. Future of Children, 15(2), 75–96.

  4. Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 650–666.

  5. Andersson, G. (2002). Children’s experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries. Demographic Research, 7(article 7), 343–364. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2002.7.7

  6. Beck, A. N., Cooper, C. E., McLanahan, S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2010). Partnership transitions and maternal parenting. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 219–233.

  7. Berger, L. M., & Bzostek, S. H. (2014). Young adults’ roles as partners and parents in a context of family complexity. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 654, 87–109.

  8. Berger, L. M., Carlson, M. J., Bzostek, S. H., & Osborne, C. (2008). Parenting practices of resident fathers: The role of marital and biological ties. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 625–639.

  9. Berger, L. M., & McLanahan, S. S. (2015). Income, relationship quality, and parenting: Associations with child development in two-parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 996–1015.

  10. Brown, S. L. (2004). Family structure and child well-being: The significance of parental cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 351–367.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bzostek, S. H. (2008). Social fathers and child well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 950–961.

  12. Bzostek, S. H., McLanahan, S. S., & Carlson, M. J. (2012). Mothers’ repartnering after a nonmarital birth. Social Forces, 90, 817–841.

  13. Carlson, M. J., & Berger, L. M. (2013). What kids get from parents: Packages of parental involvement across complex family forms. Social Service Review, 87, 213–249.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Cavanagh, S. E., & Huston, A. C. (2008). The timing of family instability and children’s social development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 1258–1270.

  15. Chan, K. H., Fung, K. W. T., & Demir, E. (2015). The health and behavioral outcomes of out-of-wedlock children from families of social fathers. Review of Economics of the Household, 13, 385–411.

  16. Coleman, M., Ganong, L., & Fine, M. (2000). Reinvestigating remarriage: Another decade of progress. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1288–1307.

  17. Cooper, C. E., Osborne, C. A., Beck, A. N., & McLanahan, S. S. (2011). Partnership instability, school readiness, and gender disparities. Sociology of Education, 84, 246–259.

  18. Dewilde, C., & Uunk, W. (2008). Remarriage as a way to overcome the financial consequences of divorce—A test of the economic need hypothesis for European women. European Sociological Review, 24, 393–407.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fomby, P., & Cherlin, A. J. (2007). Family instability and child well-being. American Sociological Review, 72, 181–204.

  20. Fomby, P., Goode, J. A., & Mollborn, S. (2016). Family complexity, siblings, and children’s aggressive behavior at school entry. Demography, 53, 1–26.

  21. Fomby, P., & Osborne, C. (2010). The influence of union instability and union quality on children’s aggressive behavior. Social Science Research, 39, 912–924.

  22. Graham, J. W. (2009). Missing data analysis: Making it work in the real world. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 549–576.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Harris, J. R. (2011). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Hawkins, D. N., Amato, P. R., & King, V. (2007). Nonresident father involvement and adolescent well-being: Father effects or child effects? American Sociological Review, 72, 990–1010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hetherington, E. M. (1989). Coping with family transitions: Winners, losers, and survivors. Child Development, 60, 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Hetherington, E. M. (1999). Family functioning and the adjustment of adolescent siblings in diverse types of families. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64(4), 1–25.

  27. Hetherington, E. M., & Jodl, K. M. (1994). Stepfamilies as settings for child development. In A. Booth & J. Dunn (Eds.), Stepfamilies: Who benefits? Who does not? (pp. 55–79). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  28. Hetherington, E. M., & Stanley-Hagan, M. (1999). Stepfamilies. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), Parenting and child development in “nontraditional” families (pp. 137–160). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  29. Hofferth, S. L. (2006). Residential father family type and child well-being: Investment versus selection. Demography, 43, 53–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hofferth, S. L., & Goldscheider, F. (2010). Family structure and the transition to early parenthood. Demography, 47, 415–437.

  31. Jansen, M., Mortelmans, D., & Snoeckx, L. (2009). Repartnering and (re)employment: Strategies to cope with the economic consequences of partnership dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 1271–1293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Johnson, D. R., & Young, R. (2011). Toward best practices in analyzing datasets with missing data: Comparisons and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 926–945.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kreider, R. M., & Ellis, R. (2011). Living arrangements of children: 2009 (Current Population Reports P70–126). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Lee, D., & McLanahan, S. (2015). Family structure transitions and child development: Instability, selection, and population heterogeneity. American Sociological Review, 80, 738–763.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Liu, S. H., & Heiland, F. (2012). Should we get married? The effect of parents’ marriage on out-of-wedlock children. Economic Inquiry, 50, 17–38.

  36. Magnuson, K., & Berger, L. M. (2009). Family structure states and transitions: Associations with children’s well-being during middle childhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 575–591.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Manning, W. D., Brown, S. L., & Stykes, B. (2015). Trends in births to single and cohabiting mothers, 1980–2013 (NCFMR Family Profiles Report No. FP-15-03). Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Retrieved from

  38. Manning, W. D., & Lamb, K. A. (2003). Adolescent well-being in cohabiting, married, and single-parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 876–893.

  39. Marsiglio, W., & Hinojosa, R. (2010). Stepfathers’ lives: Exploring the social context and interpersonal complexity. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development (5th ed., pp. 270–295). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

  40. McLanahan, S. (2004). Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography, 41, 607–627.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. McLanahan, S. (2011). Family instability and complexity after a nonmarital birth: Outcomes for children in fragile families. In M. J. Carlson & P. England (Eds.), Social class and changing families in an unequal America (pp. 108–133). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. McLanahan, S., & Jacobsen, W. (2015). Diverging destinies revisited. In P. R. Amato, A. Booth, S. M. McHale, & J. Van Hook (Eds.), Families in an era of increasing inequality (pp. 3–23). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  43. McLanahan, S., & Percheski, C. (2008). Family structure and the reproduction of inequalities. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 257–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The causal effects of father absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 399–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. McLoyd, V. C. (1990). The impact of economic hardship on black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development, 61, 311–346.

  46. Mitchell, C., McLanahan, S., Hobcraft, J., Brooks-Gunn, J., Garfinkel, I., & Notterman, D. (2015). Family structure instability, genetic sensitivity, and child well-being. American Journal of Sociology, 120, 1195–1225.

  47. Osborne, C., Berger, L. M., & Magnuson, K. (2012). Family structure transitions and changes in maternal resources and well-being. Demography, 49, 23–47.

  48. Osborne, C., & McLanahan, S. (2007). Partnership instability and child well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1065–1083.

  49. Raudenbush, S.W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models for social and behavioral research: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

  50. Reichman, N. E., Teitler, J. O., Garfinkel, I., & McLanahan, S. S. (2001). Fragile Families: Sample and design. Children and Youth Services Review, 23, 303–326.

  51. Ryan, R. M., & Claessens, A. (2013). Associations between family structure changes and children’s behavior problems: The moderating effects of timing and marital birth. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1219–1231.

  52. Ryan, R. M., Claessens, A., & Markowitz, A. J. (2015). Associations between family structure change and child behavior problems: The moderating effect of family income. Child Development, 86, 112–127.

  53. Thomson, E., Hanson, T. L., & McLanahan, S. S. (1994). Family structure and child well-being: Economic resources vs. parental behaviors. Social Forces, 73, 221–242.

  54. Von Hippel, P. T. (2007). Regression with missing Ys: An improved strategy for analyzing multiply imputed data. Sociological Methodology, 37, 83–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Wagmiller, R. L., Jr. (2010). How representative are the Fragile Families Study families?: A comparison of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort and Fragile Families samples (Fragile Families Working Paper 2010–01-FF). Princeton, NJ: Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

  56. Waldfogel, J., Craigie, T.-A., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2010). Fragile families and child wellbeing. Future Child, 20, 87–112.

  57. White, L., & Gilbreth, J. G. (2001). When children have two fathers: Effects of relationships with stepfathers and noncustodial fathers on adolescent outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 155–167.

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sharon H. Bzostek.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation


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