Bad Marriages Take a Toll on Kids

Children May Suffer When Their Parents Are in a Bad Marriage

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 05, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

June 5, 2009 -- Kids earn better grades in school when they live with both biological parents -- unless mom and dad spend their days squabbling.

The children of tense, bickering parents are more likely to binge drink than teenagers from calmer homes, and also tend to smoke more and are more likely to underachieve in school, researchers say in a new study.

Teens living with bickering parents compare about the same as young adults who live in single parent or stepparent homes, says the study, published as a report from the California Center for Population Research at the University of California-Los Angeles.

“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, PhD, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University.

Musick, lead author of the study, and co-author Ann Meier, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, analyzed data on teens in 1,963 households from three waves of the National Survey of Families and Households from 1987 to 2002.

They compared youths from their teens to early 30s, comparing those who lived with married parents who often fought to comparable young people living in stepfather or single-mother households.

Musick says in a news release that the results “clearly illustrate that the advantages of living with two continuously married parents are not shared equally by all children.”

Compared with kids in low-conflict families, children from families with fighting parents at home “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,” Musick says.

They say they found that income and parenting styles didn’t account for the differences, and add that the timing and sequence of such young adult transitions are key indicators of success later in life.

Young adults from squabbling families are less likely to quit school, have early sex, or cohabit than are youths living with single mothers or stepfathers, and they’re more likely to attend college - but also more likely to binge drink, the researchers say.

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

The study indicates that how well parents manage their anger is very important. “Our results clearly illustrate that the advantages of living with two continuously married parents are not shared equally by all children,” the authors write.

Show Sources


News release, Cornell University.

Musick, K. California Center for Population Research, UCLA.

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