The Effects of Change in Family Structure on Children

Updated: May 22, 2019


Changes in family structure has been associated with negative impacts on a child’s life. These impacts include lack of academic success and an increase in behavioral issues. The lack of attention given to children in single parent homes fosters an environment for academic decline; the stress generated by the transition into new family structures influences the behavioral problems of the child. The two areas of negativity can potentially influence the emotional health of the child. The first few years of a child’s life are when they are the most dependent on their parents for emotional support, solidification of routines, financial support, and cognitive or academic support. If there is disruption during this period in a child’s life, it produces stress that is harmful to the child’s development. The evaluated studies have a few limitations. They could have more economically diverse populations studied in the future, and there could be more promotion for couple counseling to avoid separation during crucial times of child development.

Keywords: #children, #childhood, #family #familystructure, #academicsuccess, #behavioralproblems

It is very common today to come into contact with children from homes that include a single parent, stepparents, or cohabiting parents. These nontraditional family structures have been shown through studies to correlate with negative aspects in the lives of the children in the family. The tendency for a lack of academic success and behavioral problems in the children from nontraditional families could lead to emotional problems in the children later on (Cid & Stokes, 2012; Ryan & Claessens, 2013). The timing of the changes in family structure have a significant impact on the development of the child, therefore if a change is bound to happen it should be outside of the most critical time in the child’s life, which is early childhood.

Literature Review

In American society today, there are more nontraditional families than any other point in history. Changes in family structure during a child’s life have correlated with increased behavioral problems and increased struggle for academic success (Ryan & Claessens, 2013; Cid & Stokes, 2012). Various short-term and long-term effects have also been noted throughout a compilation of studies (Mackay, 2005). These changes result in a nontraditional family which is the group that is being compared to the control, the traditional family. The reasons for a nontraditional family may be “macroeconomic” and not have as much to do with the relationship between partners, but with the environment around them that can add stress to their relationship.

Academic Success

Academic success appears to not come as readily to students living in nontraditional households. In 2012, Cid and Stokes conducted a study in Uruguay that sought to find a connection between changes in family structure and the academic success of children. The population in Uruguay is similar to the United States when compared to other Latin American countries; they are more secular and have more gender equality than their neighbors. This is thought to play a factor in why their rates of divorce and population of nontraditional families resemble the United States (Cid & Stokes, 2012). Uruguay is a rapidly developing nation, however their rates of students dropping out of school does not show advancement. The number of male students dropping out was much higher than female students (Cid & Stokes, 2012).

Throughout the education system in Uruguay, nontraditional families have seen a higher dropout rate among boys than girls in similar age groups. In their system, not all levels of school are required to be attended. Various studies, including the study in Uruguay, have supported the claim that cognitive capacity and schooling have been shown to be negatively affected by parental separation (Mackay, 2005). A student who is already falling behind academically is more likely to drop out and pursue a job (Cid & Stokes, 2012). The job the student enters may not be the highest paying, but they are usually willing to take the mediocre pay up front than struggle through more years of school. Instant gratification plays a role especially in cases of a single parent. Many boys in single parent homes do not receive the amount of attention as they may need, and in order to help provide for their family they decide entering the workforce as soon as possible would benefit them more than staying in school (Cid & Stokes, 2012). This lack of attention could potentially cause negative effects on the child’s emotional health.

Behavioral Problems

Changes in family structure have been hypothesized to increase behavioral problems in children. A study done by Ryan and Claessens (2013) followed a group of children and their mothers throughout a segment of their life while documented the changes in their family that occurred and followed. When children are younger they are the most dependant on their parents, whereas as adolescents they are more self-sufficient; thus the timing of a change in family structure is a significant influence on the child’s behavior (Ryan & Claessens, 2013). The most stressful changes would cause a disruption to settling of the children's everyday schedules. However, timing was not the only factor Ryan and Claessens looked at; they also measured the behavior problems that occurred with different types of family structure changes.

According to Ryan and Claessens (2013), changes during the early years of a child’s life produced the most significant increases in behavioral problems. This can be attributed to the level of dependency that child still has on both of their parents; their schedule and routines could be drastically changed which can induce stress, the economic standing of their household could suffer, they may not receive as much attention as they should be getting, etc. These molding years are a critical time and developmentally dangerous for disruption. there are a few behavioral problems that have been associated with parental separation are substance use, such as smoking cigarettes, and engaging in early sexual behavior (Mackay, 2005). These behavioral problems can maybe point to emotional issues the child may have.


Children who are transitioning into a single parent home may value contributing to their family, or be required to, over their academic success. The lack of attention they may receive from their parent also plays a role. Behavioral problems also have been shown in children in non-traditional families. This can stem from the amount of stress that is generated by their transitions, varying with the time of their life this occurred. The studies should have been more inclusive or identified the economical and racial status of their participants.


It is not easy to cover all the ways family structure can affect children, and it is also not always possible to have a wide variety of participants. When studying the effects of change in family structure on a child’s behavior, Ryan and Claessens (2013) did not consider families that experienced multiple changes over the course of the study. Many families today experience transitions such as a traditional family, to a single parent, to remarried. The study in Uruguay limited their population to participants from Uruguay. Even though the demographics of their population are similar to the Western world, it would be more insightful to have more variety in the participants (Cid & Stokes, 2012). However, these articles included large populations of which they studied; the study in Uruguay included 6,402 children ages 9-16, and the study on behavior included 3,492 children ages 0-12 years old (Cid & Stokes, 2012; Ryan & Claessens, 2013). In the behavioral study, the information regarding the behavior of the child was reported by the mothers - it may be more beneficial if the researches could’ve observed their behaviors personally to keep a standard of what was reported as behavior problems.

Practice Applications

The increasing rate of divorce is playing a role in the development of children. Children who grow up in nontraditional homes have shown less academic success and more behavioral problems. In order to help this trend become less prevalent, the media and advertisement should not promote divorce as much. Marital counselors who have clients that have young children should spread this information on the effect a separation could have on children in such a critical time of their development. If it only delays their separation, at least it could save additional damage from being done to the child’s growth.

Future Research

Future research could study the effects of multiple changes in family structure on children. These effects can be academic or behavioral; however, it may also be interesting to study the esteem of the children: how they see themselves, value themselves, or even how they perceive relationships. There should also be a study done with a more economically and racially diverse population to see if the children in non-traditional families still have similar results in their comparison to traditional families.


Overall, changes in family structure has been shown to influence children as far as their academic and behavioral success. These problems arise from the lack of time for support or attention from the parent, and stress occurring from the changes in their life. Divorce should be less promoted, and couple counseling should focus on keeping partners together during the critical times in child development. The timing and type of family change regarding to the level of stress it produces is a good indicator of how a child will react.


  1. Cid, A., & Stokes, C.E. (2013). Family Structure and children’s education outcome: Evidence from Uruguay. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 34(2), 185-199. doi:

  2. 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(7), 1219-1231. doi:10.1037/a0029397

  3. Mackay, Ross."The Impact of Family Structure and Family Change on Child Outcomes: A Personal Reading of the Research Literature." - Ministry of Social Development. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.