Friday, January 24, 2003
Jan. 24 — Children of single-parent families are more than twice as likely to suffer depression, kill themselves, drink to excess or get hooked on drugs than counterparts from two-parent households, a major study says.
"Children with single parents showed increased risks of psychiatric disease, suicide or suicide attempt, injury and addiction," according to the Swedish study, published Saturday in The Lancet.
Previous research has thrown up evidence that life in a single-parent households can be harmful for children, but the data has often been criticised for being either sketchy or skewed.
This is the first study, though, that covers almost an entire national population and takes into account social factors that could distort the outcome.
It assessed death, ill health and injury among 65,000 Swedish children living with a single parent, and 921,000 who lived with both parents. The period covered was 1991-99.
Single-parent children were at least twice as likely to have the problems than children from two-parent households.
The risk was especially great when narcotics were involved. Girls from single-parent families were three times likelier, and boys four times likelier, than their two-parent counterparts to become addicted to illegal drugs.
The authors, led by Gunilla Ringbaeck Weitoft, an epidemiologist of the National Board of Health and Welfare, suggest the main reason could be financial hardship among one-parent households.
This often causes stress, anxiety and social isolation, which in turn prompts youngsters to turn to drink and drugs for consolation.
But parental absence could also be a factor, they say. A single parent who is also the only breadwinner often has little time to provide support and supervision for the child.
Growing up with one parent is a widening phenomenon in industrialised democracies. In Sweden, according to the authors, one in four 17-year-olds had experienced their parents' separation.
They add, though, that divorce per se is not the cause for the health problems suffered by the children.
Children often feel more secure and happier after their parents divorce, they say. A single-parent family that enjoys a low level of conflict can be less stressful for a child than an intact family whose parents are fighting all the time.