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Impact of family structure on children
published: Sunday | April 16, 2006

The presence or absence of the father figure in children's lives can affect even their performance in school.

Maureen Samms-Vaughan, Contributor

THE CHANGES in family structure that children experience during their lives are not without consequences.

Western societies have found that children from father-absent homes manifest a number of internalising and externalising problem behaviours, including sadness and depression, delinquency, aggression, sex role difficulties, early initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy, as well as poor social and adaptive functioning and low self-esteem as reported by Princeton sociologist, Sara McLanahan.


School functioning is also affected with poorer performance on academic and cognitive tests, school disciplinary problems, higher school absenteeism and dropout rates and lower occupational attainment.

Similar problem behaviours have been identified in children from single-parent and otherwise disrupted households.

Jamaican children who live in the less stable common-law and visiting unions, and those in single-parent homes or homes with a biological and surrogate parent are more withdrawn in their interactions with others.

Additionally, children who frequently move from one residence to another, in the process of child shifting, also exhibit problem behaviour.

Child shifting, a common sequel to parental absence in Jamaica, requires children to adjust physically to their new environment but also, and of greater consequence, to adjust emotionally.

The children of incarcerated women, though relatively few in number, require special consideration because of the effects of this more unique type of parental separation.

A recent report by sociologist Dr. Aldrie Henry-Lee found that women worried about their children's well-being but thought their relationships with the children were not affected.

The children, however, were depressed, cried frequently and expressed silent resentment and anger. They were frequent victims of child shifting and experienced physical and emotional abuse as well as discrimination.

The presence of these children often worsened already impoverished homes and their schooling was often affected.


Sociologist Marinna Ramkissoon, in her research on the interaction between Jamaican fathers and their children, investigated two aspects of the father-child relationship: physical absence and psychological absence.

Psychological absence refers to the father's absence in the minds of their children based on emotional inaccessibility, lack of responsibility and indifference to the welfare of their children.

Taken separately, the psychological presence of the father is more important to the emotional well-being of the child.

Physical presence necessarily promotes psychological presence, but physical presence and psychological absence can lead to expressive rejection and greater psychological damage.

It is suggested that concerns about the effects of fathering on children should consider both physical and psychological presence.


As shown in Ramkissoon's research and that of others, while the composition of the family is important to children, how the family functions to support children is more important to children's development.

Family functioning aimed at supporting children's development is commonly called parenting.

In the Western family structure, this is largely the role of biological parents.

However, in the varying family structures present in Jamaica, and indeed in the Caribbean, the terms 'family' and 'parenting' have much broader contexts.

Psychologist Diana Baumrind's seminal work on parenting, along with others that extended her work, identified two main characteristics of parenting: responsiveness and demandingness.

The responsive parent is accepting of the child, is warm, patient, attentive and sensitive to the child's needs. The non-responsive parent is cold, emotionally rejecting, and frequently degrades the child.

The demanding parent establishes high standards for the child and insists that the child meets these standards. The non-demanding parent makes little demands on the child and rarely tries to influence the child's behaviour.


Four parenting styles based on these characteristics can be identified: authoritative, permissive, authoritarian and uninvolved.

Authoritative parenting, where responsiveness is matched with reasonable demands, though identified before the concept of child rights became well known, is essentially parenting that recognises the rights and responsibilities of parents and children.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the children of authoritative parents have the best outcomes; these children are happy, independent, self-confident, self-controlled and achieve high levels of social and moral maturity and academic achievement.

Permissive child-rearing results in defiant, rebellious, dependent children, while uninvolved child rearing results in children with poor emotional control, low self-esteem, poor school performance and antisocial behaviour.

Jamaican parenting style has been described as authoritarian, with high demandingness, unmatched by responsiveness, where the commonest words the child probably hears is 'Do it because I say so'. Harsh punishments accompany the authoritarian style.

Pre-school children reared in this manner are withdrawn and unhappy. Older boys show high rates of hostility, anger and defiance, while girls lack initiative and retreat from challenges.

The children perform better at school and have less anti-social behaviour than children of the permissive and uninvolved types, but are less well-adjusted and less successful than children reared in the authoritative style.


Jamaican parenting style was further investigated by administering a questionnaire, the Parent Stress Index (PSI), to the parents of six-year-olds (Samms-Vaughan, 2005).

The PSI measures parenting stress in two domains ­ the child domain and parent child. Total parenting stress is obtained by summing child and parent domain scores, and life stress is measured separately.

The findings show that Jamaican parents have high levels of total parental stress, much higher, for example, than that experienced by parents in the United States.

Parents living in poorer circumstances have higher parenting and life stress levels with regard to the child, parenting and life stress levels.

With regard to the child, parents had high levels of stress because they had difficulty finding their child acceptable to them and thought their child was too demanding.

From the parent perspective, parenting was most stressful because parents lacked competence in parenting, did not feel a strong attachment to their child, had their own activities restricted by parenting and did not have the support of their spouse in parenting.

Parental depression has been shown in many studies in developed countries to reduce parenting effectiveness.

The children of depressed mothers have more behaviour problems and have lower school achievement.

However, in Jamaica, parental depression was less important as a contributor to parenting stress than competence, attachment, role restriction and spousal support.

Recent further research on parenting by sociologists Heather Ricketts and Pat Anderson supported the associations between poverty and parental stress, but also found that parents who were never married, parents with large numbers of children to care for and parents who had both younger and older children in the home had high levels of parental stress.


The impact of parenting stress on Jamaican children is not to be ignored. Parenting stress is one of four factors identified in Jamaica that affect all aspects of children's outcomes: cognitive development, school performance, behaviour problems and behaviour strengths (Samms-Vaughan, 2005).

One way that parenting stress may exert its impact is through interaction with children.

Ricketts and Anderson found that highly-stressed Jamaican parents do not spend as much time interacting with their child and much of their interaction is inappropriate, with high levels of harsh discipline.

Importantly, Ricketts and Anderson showed that parental stress was reduced by access to parenting information but relatively few parents had such access.

The implication is that parenting information and support should be made more widely available, to improve parent-child interaction.

Taken from the booklet 'Children caught in Crossfire: Grace Kennedy 2006 Lecture' by Maureen Samms-Vaughan.

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