Kids in high-income families are more likely to misbehave when their parents split up than kids in poorer families, according to new research in the journal Child Development.
Researchers also noted that when the children were being raised by a single parent and then moved into a step-family situation, the wealthier kids' behaviors improved. The change from single parent to step family didn't make a difference in lower-income families.
The researchers, from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, looked at the implications of such family disruption for children ages 3 to 12 in terms of behavior problems, using a national sample that included almost 4,000 kids who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.
"Our findings suggest that family changes affect children's behavior in higher-income families more than children's behavior in lower-income families — for better and for worse," said Rebecca M. Ryan, lead author and assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown, in a written statement.
"Changes in family structure affected the behavior of children from high-income families, but did not affect the behavior of children in low-income environments," she said. "This may be because the finances of economically disadvantaged families don't change as much when parents separate as those of greater means."
For the study, families were catalogued as living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($47,000 for a family of four), between 200 and 300 percent of poverty ($47,100 to $70,650) and above that level.
An article in USA Today noted that the most vulnerable age for children when parents separate was between ages 3 and 5.
USA Today's Sharon Jayson wrote, "The study found that such disruption, particularly in the child's first three years but likely as long as five years, 'more strongly influences children's development than changes later in childhood,' and those influences 'seem to have negative effects on children's behavior.'"
Ryan told Time that while the study showed the children of high-income parents were more likely to have behavior problems, it did not explain why.
"But she has some guesses," wrote Time's Belinda Luscombe. "The first is that dads, who are usually the breadwinners, often move out of the home so there’s a big dip in household income. Or it could be that the kids have to move to a new neighborhood/school/friend group and the instability takes a toll. Or maybe less-wealthy families don’t take it so hard. 'Parental separation is more common among lower-income families. Parents and children may perceive family changes as more normative, more predictable, and, thus, less stressful.'”
Ryan also noted that there were more differences to the kids based on the family income than there were based on family structure, suggesting that "quality of the home environment, regardless of family structure, mattered most to social and emotional wellbeing."
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