Family Structure and Aggression among Children/Adolescents

Happy family. Parents and kids in a line

Looks can be deceiving

Several features of the home environment are known to have a significant impact on aggression among children and adolescents. One feature that has received much attention in the psychological literature is family structure. Sheline, Skipper and Broadhead (1994, cited in Summers and Bakken, 2006) found that when compared to non-violent children, violent youngsters are about six times more likely to have unmarried parents and 11 times as likely to live with their fathers only. Other studies suggest that a lack of contact with fathers may also increase aggression. Pfiffner, McBurnett, and Rathouz (2001, cited in Summers & Bakken, 2006), for example, found a gradual rise in violent behavior starting with youths who lived with both parents, increasing for those who had some contact with their fathers and increasing further for those who had no contact with their fathers.  Similarly, Fagan and Rector (2000, cited in Smith & Green, 2007),  found that children from father-absent households usually harbor feelings of hostility, associate with deviant peers and get involved in negative activities.

The increased risk of adverse outcomes for children who live apart from their biological fathers appear to occur regardless of race, education, or mother’s remarriage (Amato, 2000, cited in Carlson, 2006; Cherlin, 1999, cited in Carlson, 2006; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994, cited in Carlson, 2006). Similar results have been found in Jamaica, linking father-absence with delinquency among adolescent males (Crawford-Brown, 1999, cited in Smith & Green, 2007), while the presence of a father in the household appears to protect against maladaptive behaviours, including aggression (Leo-Rhynie, 1997, cited in Smith & Green, 2007). [showmyads]

Lack of contact with mothers also contributes to aggression. In one related study conducted in Jamaica, Crawford-Brown (1999) investigated factors influencing conduct disorder among male adolescents. Conduct disorder is a persistent pattern of behavior in which social norms and the rights of others are violated. The disorder often involves aggression (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Results from the study revealed a constellation of family factors related to the disorder, including the absence of, and low contact with mothers. More specifically, of all the conduct-disordered boys in that study, 87% were from homes where the mother was absent during childhood.

While many studies cited above indicate that single parent families have negative outcomes for children and adolescents (e.g. Capron, Therond & Duyme, 2007; Amato, 2000, cited in Carlson, 2006; Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007), there is a lack of consistency in results. Other researchers have failed to observe such an association when factors such as low socio-economic status and mental or physical ill-health of parents are taken into account (Burstrom, Diderichsen, Shouls, & Whitehead, 1999, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007; McLanahan, 1999, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007; Ringback, Haglund, Hjern, & Rosen, 2002, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007). Findings regarding the effects of single mother versus single father families are also contradictory. Some studies reported that children from single father households experienced more social and behavioural problems than those from single mother families (Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1992, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007; Hoffman & Johnson, 1998, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007), while other have failed to observe such differences (Hilton & Devall, 1998, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007; Pike, 2000, cited in Jablonska & Lindberg, 2007).

In accounting for some of these inconsistencies, researchers have argued that family structure masks the effects of other variables that are more directly related to adolescent behavior (McCord, 1982, cited in Paschall, Ennett, & Flewelling, 1996; Johnstone, 1981, cited in Paschall et al., 1996). This argument has since received some amount of empirical support. Cernkovich and Giordano (1987, cited in Paschall et al., 1996), found that adolescent delinquent behavior was not associated with family structure but was related to the quality of relationships between the adolescent and their parents. In a later study, Paschall and her colleagues obtained similar results in a White sub-sample of adolescent males. Among this group, violent behavior was not associated with family structure but was significantly related to parental attachment (Paschall et al., 1996). Nevertheless, there were inconsistencies even within this study for among Black adolescent males in the sample, the researchers found the opposite to be true. Within this group, family structure was significantly related to violent behavior where males living in an arrangement other than with both parents, most often with their mothers only, were more likely to report recent fighting. On the other hand, no direct relationship was found between attachment to parents and violent behavior among black males. The inconsistency in these results suggests the need for additional research examining the relative effects of both family structure and aspects of the parent-child relationship on aggression.

Finally, there is evidence to suggest that the effects of family structure differ for males and females. Some studies have indicated that family disruptions have a more severe and long-lasting effect on boys than on girls (Ram & Hou, 2005). However, other studies have not observed this relationship (Powell & Downey, 1997, cited in Ram & Hou, 2005; Abato & Sobolewski, cited in Ram & Hou, 2005). Research also suggests that males and females express their reactions to family change in different ways where boys are more likely to externalize while girls are more likely to internalize their emotions (Davies & Lindsay, 2001, cited in Ram & Hou, 2005; Shaw et al., 1998, cited in Ram & Hou, 2005). Consistent with these results, Ram & Hou (2005) found that living with a single parent resulted in greater externalizing aggression among males but more indirect aggression among females. That is, females tended to express their distress through ways that are indirect, passive and not easily noticeable (Ram & Hou, 2005).


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author

Capron, C., Therond, C., & Duyme, M. (2007). Brief report: Effect of menarcheal status and family structure on depressive symptoms and emotional/behavioural problems in young adolescent girls. Journal of Adolescence, 30, 175-179.

Carlson, M. J. (2006). Family structure, father involvement, and adolescent behavioral outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68 (1), 137-154.

Crawford-Brown, C. (1999). The impact of parenting on conduct disorder in Jamaican male adolescents. Adolescence, 34, 417-436

Jablonska, B., & Lindberg, L. (2007). Risk behaviours, victimization and mental distress among adolescents in different family structures. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 42, 656-663.

Paschall, M. J., Ennett, S. T., & Flewelling, R. L. (1996). Relationships among family characteristics and violent behavior by black and white male adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 25, 177-197.

Ram, B., & Hou, F. (2005). Sex differences in the effects of family structure on children’s aggressive behavior. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 36 (2), 329-341.

Smith, D. E., & Green, K. E. (2007). Violence among youth inJamaica: A growing public health risk and challenge. Pan American Journal of Public Health, 22 (6), 417-424.

Summers, B. & Bakken, L. (2006). The effects of family structure and parenting style on overt aggressive behavior at school. In Proceedings: 2nd Annual Symposium on Graduate Research and Scholarly Projects (pp. 44-45). Wichita, KS : Wichita State University.

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