24 January 2003
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A study in Sweden provides strong evidence that children raised by single parents are more likely to suffer mental health problems than children in two-parent homes.
One-fifth of Swedish homes with children are run by a single parent. With divorce rates at an historic high there and elsewhere in the industrial world, a team from the government's National Board for Health and Welfare sought to determine how children living with one parent fare socially.
After tracking nearly 65,000 such children for nine years, the researchers report in the medical journal The Lancet that those children are at a physical and mental health disadvantage compared to children living with both parents.
"We found that children in lone-parent families showed increased risks of a variety of unfavorable outcomes," says behavioral scientist Gunilla Ringback Weitoft. She says, children with single parents were more likely to suffer psychiatric problems, suicide, and alcohol and drug addiction.
The study indicates that the major explanation could be financial hardship, as measured by whether the parent received social welfare benefits and rented rather than owned a house. The poorer children did worse.
Ms. Weitoft says single children in other industrial nations could be even worse off, because Sweden's welfare benefits protect the vast majority of its citizens against poverty. "In an international perspective, the socio-economic situation of the lone parent in Sweden seems to be quite favorable, if you compare it to other countries," she says.
However, this lack of financial hardship in Sweden causes British public health specialist Margaret Whitehead of the University of Liverpool to doubt that economic status is behind the problems outlined in the study. "It raises the issue that there is a health disadvantage of great concern, but it doesn't necessarily tell us what the pathway is to that disadvantage, and where we could intervene to help," she says.
The Swedish researchers' data seem to support Ms. Whitehead's doubt. Even after adjusting the data to statistically eliminate economic differences, children with single parents were still twice as likely to have psychiatric disorders, attempt suicide, and abuse alcohol, and three to four times more likely to use narcotic drugs.
So, if poverty isn't the fundamental answer, what is? Ms. Whitehead says social isolation of single parents might be a stress factor that they transmit to children. Another may be that they are poor - not in money, but in time, time needed to support and supervise their children. "Most are expected to work," she says. "At the same time, they are sole carers; and the hypothesis is there is added stress and time required on a single carer to both look after the child and hold a full time job."
Whatever the cause, Ms. Whitehead emphasizes that it is difficult to apply the Swedish findings to other countries because of differing sociological situations. She says, it is imperative to address these inequalities by finding effective policies matched to prevailing circumstances.