Early childhood is arguably the most critical period in human development. This is the time when a child’s brain develops the most, children learn how to interpret and interact with the world that surrounds them, acquire language and initiate enduring emotional bonds. The social, environmental, economic and personal experiences of the child in the first 5 years of life can have long-lasting consequences on their development and subsequent life outcomes as adolescents and adults. During this life stage, the family plays a pivotal role in the lives of children, acting as a key socializing agent and the provider of resources vital for subsistence and optimal development.
However, in developed countries and over the last few decades, families are becoming more heterogeneous. The norm of the nuclear family with two biological parents is being progressively challenged by the emergence of new family types, including one-parent and reconstituted families. Many studies have examined the role of family structure in promoting or detracting from children’s physical health and cognitive development, and a literature on children’s socio-emotional and behavioural functioning is rapidly emerging. This literature is nevertheless limited in two ways. First, it tends to look at family structure at single point in time, ignoring the volatility of family forms to which a child can be exposed over time. Second, there is little to no research in the Australian context.
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 functioning. 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, we find that children in Australia who spend time in one-parent or reconstituted families experience more socio-emotional and behavioural problems than other children. Part of the association between early life course family structure and children’s socio-emotional functioning is attributable to a greater tendency amongst disadvantaged individuals to enter vulnerable family forms, but some genuine influences of exposure to a vulnerable family type remain. This suggests that preventing people from entering vulnerable families through separation or divorce could improve child wellbeing. From a policy perspective, this is nevertheless difficult to accomplish and overlooks the problems that might arise for children when adults in unhappy relationships remain together. Tackling the mechanisms that connect exposure to a vulnerable family type and children’s socio-emotional and behavioural outcomes may prove more fruitful. Our findings suggest 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.
June 10, 2015