Literature Review on the Impact of Family Breakdown on Children

Simon Roberts, Bruce Stafford, Deirdre Duffy, Julia Ross, Judith Unell

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    Summary Increasing rates of divorce, cohabitation and single parenthood mean that the well-being of families throughout the European Union has generated considerable interest from policy makers. This report presents an overview of the available knowledge that is published in the English language on the way that family change affects children. Across the EU, family structure, formation, dissolution and policy vary considerably. The review considered selected outcomes for children in 12 countries: Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK. These countries have been selected to represent different approaches to family policy. The outcomes considered are poverty and social exclusion, educational achievement, health and well-being, and housing. The review shows that the increased risk of poverty among children in single parent families is reinforced by disadvantage at school and poorer health and housing outcomes. Children from non-intact families are more likely than those living with both their parents to be exposed to risks which represent barriers to educational achievement. Educational outcomes are of particular concern as they are crucial to the future life-prospects of children and young people. There is also a negative relationship between single parenthood and health outcomes for children. Moreover, family breakdown can have substantial, long-lasting adverse repercussions for the housing situations and living arrangements of children of single parent families. A fall in household income, market pressures and the lack of affordable housing can push post-breakdown households into poor quality or inappropriate housing. While the general thrust of the literature is that family breakdown is associated with poorer outcomes for children, there is debate about the nature of this link. Some researchers have argued that the association has been overstated and that background features of family life, which often go unmeasured, may exercise a greater influence on children’s outcomes than family structure per se. Others believe that there are specific risk factors associated with growing up within a non-intact family which exercise a real effect upon outcomes. A third type of explanatory framework considers the extent to which differing family policy environments across countries mediate the link between family structure and children’s outcomes. As a review of English language publications, many of the sources used come from the Nordic countries and the UK. There are fewer studies reported here for CCE and Southern European countries. While care must be taken not to ‘overgeneralise’ the findings, the review nonetheless highlights the importance of providing a policy framework that provides single parents with a ‘life-work’ balance, decent family income, and support services delivered by professionals and agencies sensitive to the risk of poorer outcomes for children due to family breakdown. The review finds that some EU countries perform better than others in delivering policies for children in general and children of single parents in particular which provides learning opportunities for countries facing the challenge of guaranteeing equal opportunities for all children.
    Original languageEnglish
    PublisherEuropean Commission
    Number of pages108
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


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