Growing up in a family with a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or incarceration places kids at higher risk of childhood depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders, according to Nicholas Zill at the Institute of Family Studies.

That might sound self-evident, but Zill also shows how these factors work together with family structure to put some children at a greater disadvantage than others. As the following graph illustrates, US data show that children cared for by a divorced or separated mother are far more likely to also experience alcohol or drug abuse, or mental illness in the family, or the imprisonment of a family member.


It is noteworthy that young people in stepfamilies had family histories similar to those for kids living with divorced or separated mothers.

Also worth noting is the fact that these comparisons have been adjusted for differences across family types in the average age, sex, and race/ethnicity of the child; family income and poverty status; and the parent’s educational attainment.

And yes, there’s the causality issue, which Zill addresses:

Why are histories of substance abuse, mental illness, and incarceration more common in certain family types? The causal arrow probably goes both ways. Adults who abuse drugs or alcohol, become mentally ill, or engage in criminal behavior are more likely than other adults to have turbulent romantic relationships and to have their marriages break up or never get started. They are also more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and babies outside of marriage. Of course, a parent becoming depressed, drinking heavily, or using drugs may also be a reaction to the stress of domestic conflict and the strain of raising children as a single parent, often in trying financial circumstances.

Whether preexisting condition or response to relationship turmoil, the combination of parental psychopathology and family disruption increases the risk of emotional or conduct disorder in the child beyond that from family disruption alone.

Children in intact families can also suffer if there is mental illness in the family – 16 percent of such children had an emotional disturbance requiring counseling, versus only 5 percent if there were no such family history.

Experiencing family disruption alone doubles children’s rates of emotional disturbance (11 percent versus 5 percent), while the combination of family disruption and mental illness history multiplies it by a factor of five (26 percent versus 5 percent). Zill notes:

Nearly all kids feel a mixture of anger, sadness, and anxiety when their parents argue and split up, and many show short-term behavioral disturbances as well. But after a period of time, provided their subsequent life circumstances are not too toxic, most are able to adjust and do reasonably well. Significant minorities, however, show longer-term impairments, such as high-school dropout or college non-completion, chronic joblessness, premature sexual involvement and parenthood, and juvenile delinquency or adult criminality.

He suggests that genetics may play a part in the greater impact that family disorder has on some children, and that this deserves further study. Meanwhile, one thing is clear: family structure matters in children’s lives.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet