The long-term effects for children of different parental backgrounds

Ann Buchanan, JoAnn Ten Brinke
1st Aug 1997

This study looked at the effect coming from different parental backgrounds had on people in their adult lives.

It found that, generally, the structure of the family in which a child had been brought up (such as living with a step-parent) was less important than the social context (such as living in poverty) in which childhood was passed.



Different parental backgrounds have been shown to have long-term effects for some children in adult life. Ann Buchanan and JoAnn Ten Brinke from Oxford University, using data from the National Child Development Study, separated out parental backgrounds relating to the 'structure' of the family (children living with birth, step, widowed, or lone parents) from those relating to the 'social context' (severe social disadvantage or an experience of 'care') and explored what happened to the children in each group in adulthood. They found:

  • There were significant relationships between parental backgrounds and the outcomes explored (views on parenting and family life; expectations of help in times of need; life satisfaction; emotional well-being and family conflict). The differences, however, affected only a small minority of adults.
  • Most adults held similar views about parenting and family life; had similar expectations about the help from family and friends that they could call upon; and had high levels of life satisfaction, emotional well-being and low levels of family conflict.
  • For a small minority of adults, however, the outcomes were very different, particularly in relation to emotional well-being. There were highly significant differences in the levels of risk for emotional problems between the different groups, with those with experience of local authority care or social disadvantage in childhood most at risk.
  • Generally, the structure of the family in which a child had been brought up was less important than the context.
  • Parental backgrounds affected women and men in different ways. For example, for women an experience of severe social disadvantage as a child, was more strongly associated with later mental health problems at age 33 than being in care, whereas for men, the reverse was true.
  • Factors as a child grew up, such as whether or not they gained qualifications and employment, relationships with their own partners, and whether they smoke or drank, dramatically changed the outcomes seen. Those with jobs, for example, were much less likely to experience mental health problems in adult life whereas heavy smoking and drinking was a risk factor.


Family patterns have undergone rapid change in the last 30 years. The central question for those involved in family research is - what are the consequences for children of these changes?

Research to date has shown that for some children family disruption can have repercussions into adulthood. How far are the outcomes in adult life related to the 'structure' of the family or the factors that may come as a result of parental background, such as poverty and parenting difficulties? In the extreme, when parenting breaks down, children can be taken into care. What effect does this experience have in later life?

Using data from the National Child Development Study, this study sought to untangle some of these complex interconnections. Parental backgrounds relating to the structure of the family were separated out from those relating to the social context. The different groups were:

  • 'Birth' children living with two birth parents until age 16
  • 'Restructured' children living in step-families at age 16
  • 'Widowed' children living with a lone parent where the other parent had died
  • 'Lone' children living with a lone parent at 16 for other reasons
  • 'Disadvantage' children brought up with severe social disadvantage such as living in overcrowded accommodation, or in housing lacking basic amenities such as sole use of a bathroom or toilet, or receiving free school meals
  • 'Care' children who had any experience of care by local authorities

The last two groups were further divided into whether they were living with their birth family or a restructured family at age 16. Numbers were not large enough to separate into whether or not they were living with a lone parent.

In addition a range of independent factors as the child grew up or in adult life were taken into consideration. Among these were: social class, family mobility, jobs, qualifications, presence of a partner, and ability.

The study looked at the following outcomes at age 33.

Views on parenting and family life

In the National Child Development Study as a whole, most people did not support 'traditional' marital values. For example, seven out of ten people felt 'it was all right to have children without being married', and the majority of both men and women disagreed with the statement that 'couples who have children should not separate'. Children of lone parents expressed the least support for 'traditional' marital values. In addition, in all the groups individuals with high non-verbal skills and/or qualifications, and women who were working, demonstrated less support for 'traditional' marital values. These findings suggest that family diversity is here to stay. However, women and men were not rejecting family life. Most men and women interviewed aspired to both a family life and a working life.

Expectations of help in times of need

The study found that most people preferred to seek help from within the family, and most had expectations that their needs would be met. There were, however, significant differences in the amount of help, particularly from parents and parents-in-law, that individuals in the different groups felt able to call upon. These differences were more pronounced where there had been family conflict.

People, however, who needed help most, may have had families the least able to provide this support. Adults with an early experience of severe disadvantage and a 'care' experience were particularly vulnerable in this respect.

Satisfaction with life

In assessing how satisfied they are with their life, people make a complicated calculation between what they wanted and what they have achieved. Measures of life satisfaction are therefore a 'bottom-line' calculation bringing together a range of intangible influences.

In this study, most people reported high levels of satisfaction with their present adult lives. This finding suggests that regardless of their parental backgrounds, they were meeting their goals and aspirations.

There were, however, different levels of life satisfaction between the different groups, particularly amongst men. Men who had any experience of 'care' were significantly less satisfied with their lives.

An interesting finding was that, in the sample as a whole, having children by age 33 did not increase levels of life satisfaction. Indeed women who had children at age 23 were significantly less satisfied with their lives than those who did not have children. These findings may reflect the stresses of bringing up children in a complex modern society.

Emotional costs

Regardless of their parental backgrounds and later experiences, the vast majority of young people survived into adulthood without measurable psychological scars. However, where problems existed, there were different levels of risk between the groups for emotional and behavioural problems at 16, and a tendency toward depression at age 33 (see Figure 1).

The risks were much greater where children had an early experience of disadvantage or 'care'. Some of these children may have had difficulties long before any subsequent family disruption.

Nevertheless, despite the increased risks of psychological problems amongst the more disadvantaged groups, around three-quarters of those who had been in 'care' did not have psychological problems in adolescence and four out of five did not have mental health problems in adult life.

Family conflict and its consequences

Although conflict is a natural and even inevitable part of family life, most people were able to resolve their difficulties. Those individuals for whom family conflict was recorded as a matter of concern were a remarkably small group. The extent of family conflict, however, differed significantly between the groups. For example, 23 per cent of children brought up by birth parents had disagreements with their parents when they were 16, compared to 33 per cent for those brought up in step-families and more than half of those brought up by either type of lone parent.

The experience of conflict had consequences in adult life. There were significant relationships between early family difficulties and conflict at age 7, conflict with parents at 16 and later disagreements with adult partners and neighbours at age 33. There were also significant links between family conflict and psychological problems in adolescence and in adulthood.

Generally an important indicator that conflict was affecting a child, and that a child might be vulnerable to depression as an adult, was the presence of psychological problems at age 16.


This study concludes that although most children appeared to do well, different parental backgrounds did influence the possibility of poorer outcomes in adult life. This possibility, however, could be dramatically changed by other factors as the child grew up such as education, jobs and their own partners.

Children who had been brought up by two birth parents until the age of 16 (without early disadvantage or experience of 'care') had higher levels of life satisfaction and more family support, fewer psychological problems, and less conflict at every age. In most of the outcomes examined, children brought up in restructured families without 'care' experience or early disadvantage did not differ significantly from those brought up by birth parents. This was also true for children in the widow/er parenting group. Outcomes for children who had been brought up by lone parents were more variable. The most vulnerable, particularly to psychological problems, were those brought up in disadvantage or with an experience of 'care'. Even in these vulnerable groups, however, the great majority of children did not have such problems.

About this study

This study made use of the longitudinal National Child Development Study, which originally included 17,414 children born in the first week of March, 1958. Since 1958, a range of medical, educational and social information has been collected in five sweeps in 1965 (age 7), 1969 (age 11), 1974 (age 16), 1981 (age 23) and 1991 (age 33). For this study, data were used from all five sweeps.