When their parents split up, children in higher-income families – but not those in lower-earning homes – are more likely to develop behavioural problems, a new study suggests.
Children's age at the time their parents separate also influences their risk for problems such as aggression or defiance, the researchers found.
But moving from a single-parent family to a step-parent family improved the conduct of youngsters in higher-income homes, they said.
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"Our findings suggest that family changes affect children's behaviour in higher-income families more than children's behaviour in lower-income families for better and for worse," said study leader Rebecca Ryan, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
For the study, researchers analysed data on nearly 4,000 U.S. children, aged 3 to 12. The findings were published in the journal Child Development.
Divorce may affect the behaviour of children in higher-income families and not those in lower-income homes because poorer kids may not experience such a dramatic change in their living conditions, the researchers suggested.
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In addition, single-parent and blended families are more common in lower-income homes, and therefore may be viewed as more normal by lower-income children, the study authors said.
The study found that among wealthier families, parents' separation increased the risk of their children's behavioural problems only if the separation occurred when children were 5 years or younger.
Moving into a step-parent family benefited the children's behaviour only if it took place after age 6 years.
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"These findings suggest that both economic context and children's age are important to consider in understanding the effects of family structure on children," Ryan said in a journal news release.
"While economic resources in many ways buffer children, higher initial family income doesn't appear to be a protective factor when parents separate, at least for younger children."
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Image: Unhappy child from Shutterstock.
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