Family structure change and the health and well-being of adults and children


Dr. Claire Kamp-Dush, Department of Human Sciences
Rank at time of award: Associate Professor



Over the past 5o years, one of the largest demographic shifts in the United States involved change in the composition and experience of family life. In particular, it has become increasingly less likely for children to spend their entire childhoods in a family headed by their married biological parents. Instead, the number of children residing with two biological married parents has been steadily declining while the proportion of children residing in step­ families or families formed outside of marriage (including single-parent and cohabiting-parent families) are at an all time high (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2001).  Because research has not focused on the dynamic nature of family structure, most studies have employed simple measures of family structure. Typically, studies employ the number of family structure transitions as the sole measure of family structure dynamics. Given the dynamic nature of family structure, relying solely on the number of family structure transitions fails to capture much of the variability in family experiences. In particular, this measure does not account for patterns of change in family structure--some adults may transition in and out of relationships regularly across their adult years, while others may have an unstable period where they experience several family structure transitions in a short period of time, but then enter into a long-term relationship. Different transitions may have different implications for children. For example, given the legal and societal differences in the treatment of cohabitation and marriage, moving into or out of a cohabiting biological or step-family versus a married biological or step­ family may have very different implications for child well-being, much less when children experience these transitions multiple times across childhood. Family scholars have not yet devised good ways to measure the nuances of family structure experience over time.


This workshop will be organized around a central question:  How can family scholars capture a lifetime of family structure experiences and should they?  We will address this question from multiple disciplinary and methodological perspectives.  The workshops goal is to generate empirical tests that make it possible to establish causal links between the dynamic nature of family structure over time and the health and well-being of family members. To that end we will follow the presentations and comments with a round-table discussion in which participants will work together to consider research hypotheses that addresses the central question and would push longitudinal family structure research forward.