The Effect of Parental Divorce on the Child

Children are not the chooser of the circumstanced through which they grow up in their childhood. However, the childhood environment of family and background affects the child’s life chances as an adult. Growing up with a single parent has become increasingly common since the second half of the 29th century. However, there are certain disadvantages, which entail in such circumstances about the socioeconomic conditions, health as well as self-development issues for the child.

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A study conducted by the US Bureau of Census showed that there has been an increasing number of children growing up with single parents (Bureau of Census). Data on single parents in the US show that there have been 12.9 million one-parent families in 2006 among which 10.4 million are single-mother families and 2.5 are single-father families (Bergman). However, according to the study, even in the case of a single-parent home, the marital status of the parent can affect the quality of life at home. Thus, if the child is being parented by a single parent who is a divorcee has a bigger edge than the unmarried parent. A large number of sociological works have been related to understanding the family structure and cohesiveness of a single-parent family and its effect on the well-being of the child. The general point of belief is that a child reared in a single-parent household is at a point of a disadvantage than those growing up in a twp parent household.

There are other studies, which have tried to understand the effect of parental divorce on the child’s academic progress, mental health capability, and well-being. However, the results of the studies have been increasingly controversial, as none has tended to agree with the other. Nevertheless, the studies usually support eh point of view that divorces which are the usual cause of family breakdown, harm the child and the family environment (Weitoft, Hjern and Haglund 289).

Studies have suggested that children whose parents are divorced have an increased chance of getting psychological disorders in the long term whereas others believe that they may get out of the shock in a longer duration. A large meta-analysis of the studies would suggest that single parenthood has little effect on the well-being of the children, but the usual argument against it is that researchers are looking for effects in the short run when the emotional quotient is high. Further, the short-term emotional or social problems may be of little importance compared to long-run problems.

Given this increasing problem faced by children and adolescents due to being reared in a household, which has a single parent, is a problem that needs to be understood by sociologists, to bring forth suitable measures to combat it, to have a better childhood for children. Many of the previous researches just try to see if the single parenting family has any effect on the child and the direction of the effect. However, it does not try to understand the real problems or issue behind a single parenting family. For instance, in a single parenting family, the father or the mother has to take care of the children. In most cases, the parents are working, which reduces the time spent by the parent with the child. Therefore, the quality of time spent by the child with the parent may be a reason for the perceived problems. On the other hand, it might be an economic problem that causes the child to fall out of pace with other children his/her age. These reasons are equally important to understand, as it is to understand the effect of single parenting family.

The academic well-being of a child is very important for his/her growth in life. A disrupted or inadequate academic performance may ruin the chances of a child’s in life, as he/she will be unable to compete in today’s ever-increasing competitive world. Therefore, it is important to understand the academic performance of the child and if it is being affected due to, being brought up in a single-parent household. A single parent – whether divorced or unmarried – usually carries a social stigma, which may be declining, but still has a serious effect on the child’s social life. Further, this may even lead to psychological problems. Psychological problems that face children growing up in a single-parent household may vary from minor issues general with all children like stress or moodiness to severe problems like suicidal cases. Psychologically the child may become distant and therefore may harbor serious problems within which may go unnoticed by the parent. Therefore, understanding the household and the effect on the child is very important.

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This paper aims at studying the question that if single parenthood has any negative effect on the child’s academic, social or psychological upbringing. In other words, the paper will study the effect of being brought up by a single parent has any affect on the child’s academic, social, and psychological performance. The paper will try to ascertain if a single parent is effective in disciplining the child. The question that will be answered in this paper is the effectiveness of a single parent to give adequate time to the child. Can he/she properly discipline the parent household? Further, if there is any connection between the single-parent family and the nature of punishment given to the child. The paper will also try to ascertain if the child is being deprived due to economic causes. The next section will provide a brief review of the literature of previous researches in the area.

Literature Review

Increasingly literature on single-parent household suggest that children, especially adolescents, in single-parent household indulge in health risks, behavioral problems which may include smoking, drinking, violence, aggression, unsafe sexual activity, and suicidal tendencies (Blum, Beuhring and Shew). Further previous research on single-family suggests that there have been incidences of mental health problems among children like disability of mental health, hyperactivity, and conduct disorder like smoking, stunting, etc (Wen). It is also suggested that the impact of being reared in a single-parent household may have a lasting effect on the mental and physical well being of the child as such a child is often found to be disadvantaged by the family environment: “The impact of being raised by a single parent on child’s health can be lasting and far-reaching into various aspects of life. It is conceivable that these mentally and physically disadvantaged children would have a harder time landing successful adulthood.” (Wen 3)

Earlier research had mostly concentrated on the absence of a father on the well-being of the child. However, this trend has changed. As noted by Weinraub and Wolf “Until recently, research on single-parent families focused on the father’s absence as the principal variable affecting the social and emotional development of children in single-parent homes. However, closer examination of the life circumstances of single parents and the effects of divorce has suggested that father absence is a variable that can affect children in several direct and indirect ways” (1297). According to these studies, the direct effect of the absence of a parent in the household may reduce “social attention, stimulation, and modeling” (Weinraub and Wolf 1298). The indirect effects entail increased social, economic, financial stress on the single parent, especially the mother. The adjustment required by the parent to adjust to this stress may lead to a disrupted parent-child relationship and interaction, which consequently affects the child. These studies state that the indirect effects on the child are more profound than the direct effects. It must be noted here that these results are from studies, which studied the father absence scenario in a family with a single female parent. However, in our study, we do not distinguish between the two.

Other effects that are often observed in the case of the single-parent family are that they are high on stress level with chaotic home life, overloaded tasks, and decreased financial resources. A reduction of social support is also observed in such families. These factors affect the parent’s behavior and child development (Weinraub and Wolf). Research has also suggested that in single-parent household punishments and physical abuse of a child is more common, which includes harsher disciplining. Therefore, it is believed that in single-parent families children are subjected to harsher discipline by the parent.

What is the theoretical underpinning of such researches on single parenthood? The theoretical basis of such argument is that single parents are not adequate to compete with two parents in terms of social, economic as well as psychological resources, which are contributory to the harmonious development of a child in a family environment (Wen). According to the theory of social capital, in a single-parent household parental care and supervision are lacking (Coleman). This is associated with the deficiency of social, economic, and psychological resources in a single-parent household which results in inefficient and inadequate child-rearing practices that affect the child’s potential in terms of social development, and therefore negatively affects the child’s academic activities, performance, and engagement (Brody and Flor). Intuitively it can be understood that greater engagement and participation in activities at schools broaden the horizon of the child, enhances his/her social relationships, and improves self-esteem and self-efficacy. This again helps in improving the child’s health – both physical and mental. This can also be predicted through the family structure and health-related theories, which postulate that resource scarcity – economic, mental, and physical – in single-parent households, is frequent and thus are inadequate to meet the family demand. This imbalance between inadequate resources and family demand leads to usually affects the psychological and physical well-being of family members in a longer duration of time (Hughes and Waite).

Research on single parenthood and the educational outcome of the child has been studied by many researchers who generally believe that children in a single-parent family are at an educational disadvantage to their peers. A study conducted in the US suggests that children in a single-parent family do not fall behind in the level of achievements of their peers (Coontz) however, most other studies show otherwise (Biblarz and Gottainer). These studies show that children from single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school or have less attendance in college. They also tend to have behavioral problems at schools and perform lower than their peers in standardized tests (Biblarz and Gottainer).

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Therefore, the literature review suggests that children brought up in a single-parent family are disadvantaged in terms of adequate social, psychological, and educational development. However, most of these researches concentrate on the effect of a missing father in the family on children and do not consider a situation where the mother may be absent (Brody and Flor; Biblarz and Gottainer; Weinraub and Wolf). These researches fail to see that the absence of either of the parent can have a similar effect on the development of the children. In this research, no distinction is made between the male and female parent’s absence taking the family unit to be a singular’ single-parent family. Another effect, which has not been considered here, is the social development of the child, which is helped or deteriorated from the absence of a parent. Though previous studies have traced the social inadequacies that creep in the development of the child, it does not show the pattern in which this occurs.


We will see the effect of single parent’s demographic background like age, marital status, and level of work on the child’s academic performance, behavioral development, social, and psychological development. It is widely believed that unmarried parent is young and therefore incapable of proving proper parental support to the children. Therefore, our first hypothesis (H1) is that the lower the age of the single parent, the higher is the educational, mental, and psychological problems of the child.

Further, the literature review suggested that a child of an unmarried or divorced parent is likely to have more social and psychological problems than a parent who is widowed or separated. Spending quality time with their children is of utmost importance for parents. Therefore, in the case of single parents, who are already overburdened with other financial worries; tend to have less time to spend with their children. In this respect, the paper also considers the amount of effort put in by the parent in terms of family activity engaged by the parent with the children. Single parents are believed to give harsher punishment to their children due to the stress they face. Here we hypothesize that divorced and unmarried parents will have more negative development of children in terms of social, educational, and psychological development (H2)



The study is conducted through a questionnaire survey (see Appendix). The questionnaire has been built on behavioral and demographic questions aiming to measure the demographics of the parent, the educational, social, and psychological development of the child. The questionnaire is served to single parents and is divided into four parts. The first section asks general questions related to the parent and his/her relationship with the child. The survey questionnaire asks 7 demographic questions related to the parents’ age, work profile, marital status, ethnicity, and several children they have. Then the questionnaire asks questions related to the parent-child relationship. For this, there were 4 questions. These questions were related to the number of work hours of the parent, time spent with the child/children, the nature of the family’s functioning, and the activities they engage in together. In terms of family functioning, the questionnaire provided four options, which were very cohesive, cohesive, a bit cohesive, and non-cohesive from which they had to choose the most relevant option. In terms of understanding the family engagement and activity, the questionnaire presented 5 activities viz. taking breakfast together, eating dinner together, going on family weekends, going on vacations, and attending religious ceremonies together. For this, the parents were asked to provide the frequency as often, very often, not often.

The independent variable is measured in the first section of the questionnaire. These are the marital status of the parent which are measured as unmarried, divorced, separated, and widowed. The age of the parent is taken into groups like 20-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36 to 40, 41-45, 46-50, and above 50 years of age. Here for simplicity, we will divide the age into two sections i.e. less than 40 years and above forty years.

The nature of the occupation of the parent and the number of hours put in work are related. Here we divide the economic background of the parent into three parts viz. low income, mid-income, and high-income family based on the number of employment and the job done by the parent.

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The second part of the questionnaire asks questions related to the educational development of the child. This asks questions like the education level of the child as in kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, college/university, none of the above, and any other. Other questions are related to the areas of performance of the child at school like if his/her children have skipped a grade if any of them are school dropouts, the academic performance of the child rated as excellent, above average, average, below average, and poor, any behavioral problem at school, and if the child (according to the parent) require additional academic support. For all these questions, reasons were asked as and when required.

The third section is related to the social development of the children. This section asks questions related to the child’s relationship with the parent, how and when the parent disciplines the child, the social intractability of the child, his/her nature to indulge in conflict, and the frequency of such occurrence.

The third section relates to the psychological health of the child. The section asks questions, which try to find out if the child has been treated by a psychologist or if he/she has suffered from, stress. If yes, the questionnaire tries to ascertain eh reason for the same. The next question asks if the child suffers from depression and the reason for the same. This third suggests if the child has chronic moodiness and the possible reason for the same and the frequency of occurrence of such moodiness. Then the paper tries to ascertain if the child is suicidal. If yes then the circumstances, according to the parent, led to such an action by the child.


To understand the effect of the family structure on the child’s well-being, researchers study the effect of no-parent, single-parent, and two-parent families on the child. In this paper, we will study only the effect of a single parent on the child. The study is conducted by a questionnaire survey given out to 10 respondents. We follow a systematic sampling, which first arranges the target population into systematic groups. Here we take only people who are single parents. They may be divorced, or unmarried, or anything else but they must be parenting one or more children alone. The questionnaire is served to single parents.

Data Analysis

A descriptive analysis of the independent variable so age, ethnicity, marital status, number of jobs, and number of children show that 60 percent of the total respondents are Whites who are below 40 years of age and 10 percent are those who are whites but above 40 years of age (see Appendix B table 2 i). 10 percent of the respondents are non-whites, which comprise of Hispanics, Afro-Americans, Asians, etc. who are less than 40 years of age and 20 percent of the non-white respondents are more than 40 years of age. Further, the data represents respondents where 50 percent of respondents are working and less than 40 years of age, and 20 percent of working respondents are above 40 years of age. Among the non-working people, 20 percent are less than 40 years of age and 10 percent are above 40 years of age.

Hypotheses Testing

The first hypothesis is related to the effect of the age of the single parent on the educational, social, and psychological development of the child. The correlation analysis results show that age has a negative relationship with academic performance and the need for academic support. This indicates that the higher the age more is the need for academic support and the higher the age lesser is the performance of the children. This shows that the younger single parents have better-performing children in terms so of academics. Further, the ANOVA test of age and education shows that the variability is statically significant between age and education as the p-value is less than 0.05. Thus, we can be 95 percent sure that age and education have a negative relation.

The correlation analysis shows that the higher the age of the single parent, the greater will be the inclination of the child to indulge in conflict as the correlation is found to be 0.36. Further, the frequency of the conflict will be higher as the age of the parent goes higher. The ANOVA analysis shows that result of the association between age and the social factors is found to be statistically significant (<0.0.5) at 95 percent level.

In terms of psychological health, children with single parents who are aged have problems that are more psychological as the correlation analysis shows that age and visits to psychologists correlate -0.22. The correlation between stress and age of parent is 0.22 and anxiety and age has a correlation of -0.33 and chronic moodiness has -0.22. The suicidal rate of children is higher who have younger parents (the correlation between age and suicide is 0.51). Therefore, age has differing relation with the three psychological variables – stress, anxiety, chronic moodiness, and suicidal tendencies. The ANOVA result too does not provide any significant result as the p-value is 0.92 (<0.05). From the above analysis, we can state that age has a statically significant negative relation with the educational development of the child indicating lower the age better is educational development. It shows a negative relation with social development. However, psychological health shows no significant relation. So we cannot conclusively state that H1 can be accepted as we got inconclusive results about the relation between age and psychological health. Hypothesis 2 states that depending on the marital status of the parent the educational, social, and psychological development will differ. Here it must be noted that we have coded divorced and unmarried parents as one and the rest as 2. This is because we believe that the first category of parents will have a more negative effect on the child. Therefore measuring the same, we see that marital status and academic relation ahs a positive relation indicate that people who are widowed or separated have a better performing child than those who are divorced or unmarried. This is statically not significant as the ANOVA p-value is 0.056 (>0.05). Therefore, this is not a conclusive finding. Further, the correlation between the social developments variables shows that the first group of parents has a less close relationship with children than the second group of parents (correlation of 0.08), and the children of the first group of parents have a lesser chance of involving in a conflict than the parents of the second category of parents. The ANOVA results suggest that these results are statically significant as the p-value is 0.0001 (<0.05). Therefore, the parents who are divorced or unmarried have children who are at a greater disadvantage in terms of social development than single parents who are widowed or separated.

In terms of psychological health, the children of the first group of parents suffer from less stress, anxiety, depression and are less likely to be suicidal. However, ANOVA results do not show statically significance indicating that results cannot be accepted for the whole population. Therefore, hypothesis 2 cannot be rejected or accepted due to the differences in the ANOVA results for marital status and education, social, and psychological development.


The study shows that the marital statuses of single parents are a significant influence on the educational and social development of the children. Nevertheless, it cannot be said for the psychological development of children. The children of single parents face more educational hurdles. However, children of unmarried or divorced parents have a more negative impact on the educational and social development of the child. Further younger the single parent the greater is the chance of the child to be better in terms of education and social development than other single parented children are. Apart from this the study also found that single parents who tend to be tougher on disciplinary action tend to have children with less academic capability than those single parents who take less tough disciplinary action against their children. Furthermore the greater the time spent by the single parent with the child better is the educational performance and social and psychological health of the child.

The study has certain limitations. The sample size was too small to lead to any conclusive results. Therefore, it is suggested that this study be conducted on a larger sample. Some of the respondents felt that the questions were hurting their feelings so may consider rephrasing a few of the questions. Some of the questions would have been easier to answer if there were definite choices provided.

Works Cited

Bergman, Mike. “Single-Parent Households Showed Little Variation Since 1994, Census Bureau Reports.” 2007. US Census Bureau. Web.

Biblarz, T. J. and G. Gottainer. “Family structure and children’s success. A comparison of widowed and divorced singlemother families.” Joumal of Marriage and Family vol. 62 (2000): 533-548.

Blum, R.W., et al. “The effects of race/ethnicity, income, and family structure on adolescent risk behaviors.” American Journal of Public Health 90(12) (2000): 1879-1884.

Brody, G.H. and D.L. Flor. “Maternal resources, parenting practices, and child competence in rural, single-parent African American Families.” Child Development vol. 69 (1998): 803-16.

Bureau of Census. Children with single parents – how they fare. Census Brief. Washington DC: US Department of Commerce, 1997.

Coleman, J.S. “The rational reconstruction of society.” American Sociological Review vol.58 (1993): 1-15.

Coontz, S. “The American family and nostalgic trap.” Phi Delta Kappan vol. 76 no. 7 (1995): 1-20.

Hughes, M.E. and L.J. Waite. “Health in Household Context: Living Arrangements and Health in Late Middle Age.” Journal of Health & Social Behavior vol. 43 no.1 (2002): 1-21.

Weinraub, Marsha and Barbara M. Wolf. “Effects of Stress and Social Supports on Mother-Child Interactions in Single- and Two-Parent Families.” Child Development vol. 54 (1983): 1297-1311.

Weitoft, Gunilla Ringbäck, et al. “Mortality, severe morbidity, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: a population-based study.” Lancet vol. 361 (2003): 289–95.

Wen, Ming. “Single-Parent Family Structure, Child Development, and Child’s Well-being.” American Sociological Association. Philadelphia, PA, 2005. 1-12. Web.

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