Toronto Star

Jan. 24, 2003. 05:21 AM

One-parent children at higher risk, study finds

Twice as likely to develop addiction, schizophrenia Research followed 1 million youths over 10 years

Toronto Star

LONDON—Children growing up in single-parent families have twice the risk of developing serious psychiatric problems or addictions later in life, says a new study.

The scientists found that children with single parents were twice as likely as those living with two parents to develop severe depression or schizophrenia, to kill themselves or attempt suicide, and to develop an alcohol-related disease.

Girls were three times more likely to become drug addicts if they lived with a sole parent, and boys were four times more likely.

Experts say the latest study, published this week in The Lancet medical journal, is important because of its unprecedented scale and follow-up — it tracked about 1 million children for a decade, into their mid-20s.

Researchers have for years debated whether children from broken homes bounce back or whether they are more likely than kids whose parents stay together to develop serious emotional problems.

The question of why and how those children end up with such problems remains unanswered.

While the population-based study suggests financial hardship may play a role, other experts say the research also supports the view that quality of parenting could be a factor.

Over-all, the study concluded children of single parents have increased risks of mortality, severe morbidity and injury, even when a wide range of demographic and socio-economic circumstances are included.

The study used the Swedish national registries, which cover almost the entire population and contain extensive information.

Children were considered to be living in a single-parent household if they were living with the same single adult in both the 1985 and 1990 housing census; that could have been the result of divorce, separation, death of a parent, out of wedlock birth, guardianship or other reasons.

About 60,000 were living with their mother and about 5,500 with their father.

There were 921,257 living with both parents. The children were between 6 and 18 at the start of the study, with half already in their teens.

Financial hardship, defined as renting rather than owning a home and as being on welfare, made a big difference, said some researchers.

But others experts questioned that, saying Swedish single mothers are not poor when compared with those in other countries.

In the last 20 to 30 years, poverty has been greatly reduced everywhere in Europe, but psychiatric problems in children have not, said Dr. Stephen Scott, a child health and behaviour researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London who was not involved in the study.

He said that in previous studies, once researchers have adjusted their results to eliminate the influence of bad parenting, any increased risk of emotional problems shrinks markedly. This, he said, indicates it is not so much single parenthood but the quality of parenting that matters.

"The kind of people who end up as single parents might not have done well by their kids, even if they hadn't ended up alone. They tend to be more critical in their relationships, more derogatory toward other people," Scott said, adding that it is also harder to be a warm, non-critical parent when you're bringing up a child alone.

But he noted there are plenty of children from single-parent families who don't end up with serious emotional problems.

There may also be a genetic element: More irritable people are more likely to become separated, but they are also more likely — whether they are separated or not — to have more irritable children, Scott said.

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