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How Happy Are Adolescents Living In Different Family Types In Western Countries?

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Far too much of the research discussed in the American press focuses exclusively on studies that are done with American children. By only looking at the American experience, we may miss the cultural and social conditions that will better help us understand the life experience of children.

Recently, Thoroddur Bjarnason and seven colleagues from Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Denmark and USA completed an analysis of children in 36 western industrialized countries in which they examined the life satisfaction of children in different family structures.

These scientists conducted surveys with about 4,500 adolescents ages 11, 13, and 15 in each of the 36 in each of the Western European countries (including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, etc.), Eastern European countries (such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Russia), and Israel, Canada and the U.S (184,496 children in total). They used a 10-point scale in which the adolescents rated their satisfaction with life from the "worst" possible life to the "best" possible life. The young people were also asked about their family living arrangements, such as live with both parents, live with mother only, live with mother and stepfather. For children whose parents were divorced, they were asked about joint or physical custody.

Additional information was gathered about their ability to communicate with their parents and their perceptions of their family's economic well-being.

The scientists were interested in finding out whether children in different family types are similar or different in terms of life satisfaction. The results indicate that children living with both their biological mother and father are more satisfied than those living in other types of families. However, children living in joint physical custody are more satisfied than other types of non-intact families. The authors write, "Although causality cannot be established in cross-sectional research, our research strongly suggest that parents willing to share physical custody do not need to fear that their children will suffer from less life satisfaction than children in other non-intact family arrangements."

The scientists also found that children living in single-father families or father-stepmother families had the lowest satisfaction. Since the norm is to live with one's mother, the authors suggest that these are likely families in which mothers have more severe difficulties and/or the children have experienced more emotional and social turmoil. The authors also found that children who reported difficulties talking with their mothers and/or fathers were less satisfied than children who reported an ease of talking with their parents. Also, children who perceived themselves as relatively well-off financially were more satisfied with their lives.

It is often discussed in the United States that the Nordic countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland) have social welfare policies regarding child care and other measures that are supposed to alleviate the burden of single parenthood. Nevertheless, the children in these countries did not report more satisfaction than children in other countries with less beneficial social policies. The authors suggest that children are not affected so much by the absolute deprivation as they are by the relative deprivation; in short, children compare themselves to their peers in their own communities rather than to children in other parts of the world. The authors write, "These findings have important and somewhat troubling policy implications for welfare systems geared towards reducing the impact of social inequality on children." They caution that these findings need further exploration.

Overall, this study begins to give us a picture of children's experience of different family structures across the Western world. It will be important to look closely at a more detailed analysis of cultural values within societies as well as to explore the experiences of children in other countries across the world to truly understand variations in family experience.