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Family type & child happiness

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
cheerful obese girl

25th April 2014 - Children living with a step-parent or a lone parent are as happy as those living with two biological parents, according to new research.

Single parents can worry about the impact their family make up has on their children but in a major UK study on wellbeing it appears it's the quality of the relationships in the home that matters – not the family composition.

Seven year olds

Researchers from NatCen Social Research analysed data from the Millennium Cohort Study on 12,877 children aged 7 in 2008.

They found that whether the children lived with two biological (or adoptive) parents, with a step-parent and biological parent, or in a single parent family, made no difference: 64% said they were happy ‘sometimes or never’, and 36% said they were ‘happy all the time’.

Even when the researchers removed the effects of other factors, such as parental social class, the results showed no significant differences.

Instead, factors such as relationships with others were found to be important and statistically valid, including getting on with siblings, having friends, having fun with the family and not being bullied at school.

A fourth family type – those not living with either a natural or adoptive parent – was linked with reduced happiness, but there were so few children in this category (forming only 0.3% of the total) that no further statistical analysis could be carried out.

Jenny Chanfreau, senior researcher at NatCen, told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Leeds that it wasn't family type but the quality of relationships with parents and other children that were strongly linked with how likely 7 year-olds were to be happy.

Eleven to 15 year olds

Ms Chanfreau said they found a similar result when analysing another set of survey data (the Understanding Society Study survey gathered from 2009-2011) on 2,679 children aged 11 to 15 in the UK.

The researchers found that those living with one step-parent and one biological parent were slightly more likely to be happier than those living with two biological (or adoptive) parents, and that those living with a lone parent were slightly less likely to be as happy as those living with two biological parents; however neither result was statistically significant and both were discounted.

In effect, the family type had no effect on the 11-15 year-olds’ happiness.

Relationships matter

Jenny Chanfreau told the conference: "We found that the family type had no significant effect on the happiness of the 7 year-olds or the 11-15 year olds.

"It’s the quality of the relationships in the home that matters – not the family composition. Getting on well with siblings, having fun with the family at weekends, and having a parent who reported rarely or never shouting when the child was naughty, were all linked with a higher likelihood of being happy all the time among 7 year-olds.

"Pupil relations at school are also important – being bullied at school or being ‘horrible’ to others was strongly associated with lower happiness in the 7 year-olds, for instance."

The researchers’ study was funded by Department of Health.

Reviewed on April 25, 2014

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