3 Ways That a Single-Parent Family Structure Can Affect a Child’s Mental Health

September 26, 2018 by Devin Golden, Guest Writer

Many people who struggle with a mental health disorder can trace their internal struggles back to a childhood event. For some, being bullied at school can affect someone’s future mental wellness. For others, a traumatic event such as a death in the family can lead to depression or another mental illness.

However, sometimes it’s not so much one singular event as it is the family structure in which a child grows up.

Researchers at the Lincoln Prairie Behavioral Health Center in Springfield, Illinois, reviewed 154 patients who were 12 years old and under who were admitted to the center’s preadolescent unit between July and December of 2012. The study was published on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website, and the results show that children from disrupted families are more likely to have mental health issues.

Only 11 percent of children admitted to the center came from intact families, while 89 percent had a disturbance in some way in their family’s structure. The most common type of disruption from the study was single-parent homes, either from divorce or the parent never being married. Forty-four percent of the children admitted to the center who were reviewed for the study fell within that family structure.

Whether it’s trauma, facing economic challenges, experiencing parental depression and stress, or something else, there are many ways living in a single-parent family structure can affect a child’s mental health.


For many children, their parents getting divorced can be a confusing event. Not many pre-adolescent kids, or even some teenagers, understand why their parents split up. However, the change from regularly having both of their parents present to just having one around can be extremely traumatic. Divorce can cause even worse trauma if one parent is no longer part of the child’s life in any way.

Dr. Stephen Joseph reported on Psychology Today that a study he conducted showed the effects of divorce on children. Joseph said that 29 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls who had separated or divorced parents reported high levels of post-traumatic stress. These stats are much higher than that of children who had parents still together.

Economic challenges

A study conducted by Dr. David M. Fergusson, Dr. Joseph M. Boden and Dr. L. John Horwood revealed a strong connection between a child’s exposure to single parenthood and them developing an anxiety disorder. The findings, published on the JAMA Psychiatry network, also link growing up with one parent and having poorer economic outcomes than those who were raised by two parents.

Single parents also struggle more with finances because of the restricted income for many. This can result in a child not receiving as many gifts or toys as his or her peers, possibly leading to a feeling of being inadequate or less important others.

Parental depression

Parents who must raise children on their own — either by never becoming married or by going through a divorce — struggle with anxiety or depression because they do not have their parenting partner to relieve the stress of taking care of the home and children. Additionally, any break-up of two people who were in a romantic relationship, especially one that involved childbirth and possibly a marriage, often leads to depression for the separating individuals.

An article on Psych Central titled “Depressed Parents and Their Infants” reveals how single parents who have depression can affect their children.

“Many studies have found that depressed mothers have difficulty bonding with their infants; they are less sensitive to the baby’s needs and less consistent in their responses to the baby’s behavior,” Dr. Richard O’ Connor wrote. “The babies appear more unhappy and isolated than other children. They may be difficult to comfort, appear listless, and be difficult to feed and put to sleep.”

Depression can be a devastating disease, and it’s one that millions of Americans struggle with each day. The illness can even lead to the dangerous use of drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, which is all too common. However, the burden of a mental illness combined with substance use does not need to be carried alone. Parents who are faced with the challenges of separation or divorce are encouraged to work collaboratively with their ex-partners, if possible, to help alleviate the pressure of raising children alone. In addition, when necessary, parents suffering from depression, anxiety and addictive disorders should reach out for help, whether through outpatient care or through treatment facilities such as The Recovery Village and other similar centers that are equipped to help them work through their struggles.


Devin Golden is a Content Writer with The Recovery Village, a treatment facility helping people with mental health and addictive behaviors in Orlando, Florida

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