Is staying together really better for the kids?

CORNELL (US)—While it is true that adolescents tend do better when they live with both parents, if those parents frequently argue, their teenage children are more likely to binge drink and drop out of school.

“Our findings suggest that exposure to parental conflict in adolescence is associated with poorer academic achievement, increased substance use, and early family formation and dissolution, often in ways indistinguishable from living in a stepfather or single-mother family,” says Kelly Musick, Cornell University associate professor of policy analysis and management.

Musick is the lead author of a study that compared teens who lived with married parents who often fought with those living in stepfather or single-mother households, examining factors such as school success, substance abuse, and childbearing out of wedlock.

“Our results clearly illustrate that the advantages of living with two continuously married parents are not shared equally by all children,” says Musick. “Compared with children in low-conflict families, children from high-conflict families are more likely to drop out of school, have poor grades, smoke, binge drink, use marijuana, have early sex, be young and unmarried when they have a child, and then experience the breakup of that relationship.”

Interestingly, for half these outcomes, “associations with parental conflict are statistically indistinguishable from those with stepfather and single-mother families,” Musick says.

While young adults from high-conflict households, compared with stepfather or single-mother families, are significantly less likely to drop out of high school, have early sex, and cohabit, and are more likely to attend college; they are also significantly more likely to binge drink.

“The odds of binge drinking are about a third higher for children from high-conflict families compared to single-mother families,” Musick says.

The bottom line, she says, is that children in high-conflict married households tend to do no better than those in stepfather and single-mother families. How well parents manage their anger and conflict is obviously important for the outcomes of children, but, she stressed, policy initiatives that promote marriage “need to take account of how variation within marriage relates to child well-being.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institutes of Health Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

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