Is a Non-Traditional Family Structure Completely Doomed for Failure? (How You Can Make Sure Your Child Thrives Despite the Odds)

Nicole Altamirano and Danielle Chandler

I was watching television today, and found myself particularly struck by a commercial for breakfast cereal. My fascination wasn’t with the promises of increased fiber, or the allure of “snap, crackle, and pop.” Rather, I was interested in how family was portrayed, how the notion of an “All-American family” was presented. The commercial wasn’t just selling cereal; it was selling expectations and goals. 

But the more I thought about it, I realized that what this commercial presented as the ideal family isn’t really the family that most people have. Family doesn’t necessarily follow an unforgiving mold of a father, mother, 2.5 children, minivan, and breakfast all together before beginning the day. The definition of family is expanding and evolving in order to fit the changing times. It’s 2013. Today, families can be teenage mothers, two mothers, two fathers, grandparents, stepparents, or foster parents.

This blog post will explore the evolution of family and some of the most significant factors contributing to changes within family. We’ll look at the implications of family structures that deviate from the nuclear family and seek to provide tips on how these structures can be successful environments for child development despite their nuances, as highlighted by developmental psychologists and current research.

Single Parent Households

A child being raised by single parents is one of the largest changes in the American family, a situation manufactured by either divorce or an increase in the amount of children born to unwed mothers (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p.482). Single motherhood, specifically, receives vast criticism and prompts claims of the disadvantages it presents to children socially and emotionally. Children raised by only one biological parent lack economic, parental, and community resources to enjoy, and have been found to suffer later in life (McLanahan). Studies have shown that a two-parent household is a better environment for children, whereas children of single parents find themselves more at risk for behavioral and performance problems in school, social alienation, and trouble with the law (Bumpass, Raley 1995).

However, if you find yourself raising a child as a single parent, there are some actions you can take to help your child grow to be a happy productive adult with strong family values. By making plans for your child’s future, maintaining traditions and a routine, committing fully to the family, creating open communication, and spending quality time with your child, your family can overcome what could be a difficult situation and come out stronger and more unified (Parent Education Network).

Teenage Parenthood

Although the occurrence of children born to adolescents has decreased since 1960 to 22 births per 100 females (Hamilton, Martin, and Ventura, 2007), there is no denying that this is still a prevalent and problematic facet of the changing family structure in America, especially given that 92% of all births among 15-17 year olds were to unwed mothers (, 2008).

Often times, teenage relationships are greatly disrupted by the birth of a child and are unsustainable, resulting in single parent homes (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p.482). Therefore, children of teenage parents are often raised in single parent homes, the consequences of which have already been discussed. In addition to the hurdles presented by only having one biological parent present and involved, there are additional downfalls to their situation that are faced by both teenage mothers and their children. A study conducted in Baltimore between 1996-1998 showed that adolescent mothers experienced “difficulty in realizing their life plans, marital instability, school disruption, economic problems, and difficulty in family size regulation and childrearing” (Furstenberg). Children of teenage parents have been found to exhibit low impulse control, behavior problems, and delays in development, as well as social issues (Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998,; Moore & Brooks-Gunn, 2002; Wakschlag et. al, 2001).

Adolescent mothers can help their children be successful later in life by having knowledge about child development and parenting, practicing authoritative parenting (Bates, Luster, and Vadenburt, 2003; Miller, Miceli, Whitman &Borkowski, 1996) , as well as developing a positive parent child relationship (Jaffee, Caspi, Moffitt, Belsky, & Silva, 2001).


In the United States, researchers estimate that 40-50% of all first marriages and 60% of second marriages will end in divorce ( These astounding statistics demonstrate that many children are potentially impacted by the permanent separation of their parents. In addition to the consequences of single parenthood incurred by children of divorce, (5.7 million U.S. children live only with their divorced mother and 1.5 million children live only with their divorced father, per 2003 data) (Child trends, 2007) children in divorced families are also at risk for significant short and long-term emotional problems unique to their personal situation, such as depression and sadness, low self-esteem, and social issues (Amato 2001; Ge, Natsuaki & Conger, 2006; Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998). Behavioral issues like aggression and delinquent activities and relationship issues are also frequent (Amato & Keith, Hetherington et al, 1998; Simons and Associates, 1996). In a 25 year longitudinal study, it was found that children whose parents divorced at a significant period in their development were highly likely to experience hesitance in their own relationships and had a high rate of divorce compared to adults with married parents (Wallerstein, Lewls).

To mitigate the impact of divorce on children, parents can work to build close relationships with their children, but should also strive to maintain positive relationships with their former spouse. In addition, they should strive to create an open dialogue with their children, validating and empathizing with their feelings. Finally, maintaining structure and a sense of normalcy after divorce is crucial to children’s later success personally and in terms of relationships(Child Center Divorce).

Stepparenting and Blended Families

Yet another shift in family dynamics as of late in the United States is the increasing number of stepfamilies. In fact at the minimum, one-third of U.S. children are predicted to live in a stepfamily by the age of 18, whether they have a stepfather or stepmother(“Blending Families: a Guide for Stepparents” ). This staggering statistic must not be ignored because step relationships have been shown to have negative impacts on child development, especially amongst those with stepfathers. With nearly 3/4 of stepfamilies involving stepfathers, children with stepfathers are more likely to display symptoms of withdrawal, aggressive problematic behavior, and depression than children in traditional households(Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1995). This often occurs because stepfathers often show more withdrawal and less involvement with their stepchildren, even though they may have good intentions. Because stepmothers are less frequent than stepfathers, not as much research has been conducted on the effects on the child’s development in reference to relationships with stepmothers. Therefore, there are limitations to the analysis of the full effect of stepfamilies. However, it can be predicted that a child’s relationship with the stepmother is compatible with that of the stepfather, if not worse due to the fact that more responsibility, including disciplining is often handed off to the stepmother instead of the biological father(Hetherington et al., 1998).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, it has been shown that most of these issues occur earlier on in the remarriage and formation of the stepfamily. If you can weather the initial storm and adjustment period, your children can turn out just fine. According to Psychology Today, a study shows that nearly eighty percent of children develop healthily after being raised in a stepfamily(“Lessons from Stepfamilies”). Stepparenting can be a difficult task to take on, but some useful tips in order to ease the transition include: slowly allowing the bond to form between you and your stepchild in order to give the child time and space to adjust, allowing them to still have a working relationship with their noncustodial parent if the parent is not deceased, establishing parenting roles early within the new household, and seeking to establish or strengthen your bond and relationship with each child, biological and step(“Blending Families: a Guide for Stepparents”).

Lesbian and Gay Parenting

Finally, it must be noted that there is an increasing number of lesbian and gay parenting households in the U.S. As of 2002, it was estimated that there was approximately one to five million lesbian and gay parents, although this number can be perceived to be much higher in recent years due to more acceptance and openness(Patterson, 2002).

In a study that analyzed the effect of having a gay parent on nearly three thousand adults ages 18-39, it was found that quite a few of them had more troubles than children raised in traditional households. These troubles included things like drug use, unemployment, and depression. (New York Times “Debate on a Study Examining Gay Parents”). This study has limitations, where it evaluated adults rather than children currently in households with a lesbian or gay parent. More tolerance of lesbian and gay couples and parents today would likely yield children with better outcomes. Still, in order to ensure healthy development: you should be honest and open with your children, which could help them deal with possible negative experiences outside of the home and teach them that families come in all different sizes and shapes. (

The bottom line is that despite your unique family situation, it is possible to raise a happy, successful child.


Carey, Benedict. “Debate on a Study Examining Gay Parents.” The New York Times. N.p., 11 June 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

“Gay and Lesbian Parents.” N.p., 3 June 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Jaffe, Ph.D., et al., Jaelline. “Blending Families: a Guide for Stepparents.” Helpguide, 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Rutter, Virginia. “Lessons from Stepfamilies.” Psychology Today. N.p., 1 May 1994. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Saxon, Jill, and Robert S. Siegler. How children develop, 3rd edition. New York: Worth ;, 2010. Print.

Also, studies cited within the textbook by:

Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1995

Hetherington et al., 1998

Patterson, 2002

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