A short-hand summary of the research findings suggests that, on the one hand, nothing can with certainty be said about how any child will develop merely from knowing that he or she comes from a lone-parent family or a two-parent family—second or intact. On the other hand, if the data are reliable, on average, the prospects for children who have experienced particular types of family disruption or single lone parenthood are lower over a range of outcomes than they are for those living continuously with both their parents. The differences may be relatively small, but researchers report a consistent pattern of such findings from a number of studies of similar issues. Neither family disruption nor family structure per se, however, seems alone to account for these disparities, but rather the type of disruption experienced. Children from widowed lone-parent families, for example, often do not fare markedly worse than their peers in intact families.

These ‘better’ outcomes are often contrasted with the ‘poorer’ average outcomes of children who have experienced lone parenthood as a result of marital breakdown (i. e. the separation or divorce of their parents) compared with children in intact families. These ‘poorer’ average outcomes for children are not solely a consequence of the divorce; some, and sometimes much, of the measured effects—in behaviour and educational attainment—have been found to occur beforehand. The observed differences in outcomes may then continue after the divorce but not necessarily worsen. This may suggest that divorce as an event does not measure the beginning of the breakdown in the marital relationship or its quality and influence on children’s development. Rather, it is the quality of the family relationships, of which the divorce is only a part, that are influential.

Research also suggests that differences can be observed between those who have and have not experienced particular types of family disruption on outcomes not measurable until adulthood. Among those considered are employment, unemployment, occupational status and income as well as health and social behaviour. It is not possible in a brief review to do justice to the complexity of the research or the subtle variations in outcome findings.

In general, once account is taken of other possible influential factors, social class being the most obvious example, the gap in outcomes between children who have and have not experienced family change narrows. In some cases they disappear; in others, statistically significant differences may remain. Some of these differences are small. A number of researchers have reported such or a similar pattern of findings.

Just three examples of the research findings are presented here. The first looks at the behaviour and psychological adjustment of children who have and have not experienced family disruption and lone parenthood; the second looks at educational qualifications and labour market attachment in adulthood. The comparative experiences of their transitions to adulthood are also considered.

Elsa Ferri (1976) examined the home and school behaviour of children at 11 years in one – and two-parent families. Account was taken of the cause of the lone parenthood. At school, the behaviour of children whose parents had divorced was rated as poorer and they were considered to be less well adjusted than children living either with both their biological parents or with a widowed mother. However, the statistical significance of the findings disappeared when other factors were allowed for and low income was a particularly important factor in this respect.5 Of course, for many lone-parent families, their low income may be the result of their family disruption.

Ferri’s work is alone in taking family income so directly into account in this way as far as outcomes for children are concerned.6 Direct measures such as she used are rarely available and proxies, such as social class, are often inadequate (Burghes 1994).

Ferri’s findings showed little statistically significant variation in the rating of the behaviour of children from different family settings by their parents. This was particularly relevant for those from intact and widowed lone-mother families. However, divorced and separated mothers were more likely to report that their children, particularly the girls, were having difficulties or displaying disturbed behaviour. These findings, as Ferri points out, are based on the parents’ perceptions of their children’s behaviour, which may have been influenced by their family circumstances and changes to it. Family disruption might have made them more conscious of their children’s behaviour and anxious about its cause (Ferri 1976).

Jane Elliott and Martin Richards (1991) and Andy Cherlin et al. (1991) took the analysis of children’s behaviour one stage further. Both studies looked at children and young people’s behaviour both before and after the divorce of their parents, as well as in comparison with children in intact families. All but one of the results found that while children who had experienced the separation or divorce of their parents displayed ‘poorer’ behaviour than those who did not, it was no worse after the divorce than beforehand.7

Research assessments of the educational qualifications of young people and young adults suggest that outcomes are influenced by the nature of the marital disruption. This pattern is repeated in employment, unemployment and occupational status (Maclean and Wadsworth 1988; Kuh and Maclean 1990; Elliott and Richards 1991; Richards and Elliott n. d.). In each case—whether it is their chances of getting educational qualifications, being in employment rather than unemployed or the level of their income and their occupational status, and after controlling for social class or level of mother’s education— the outcomes for the young people and young adults’ outcomes were lower for those who had experienced the separation and divorce of their parents than for those whose parents had remained together. Richards and Elliott (n. d.) observed that for young people with fathers in non-manual occupations who had experienced the separation or divorce of their parents, the chances of achieving any educational qualifications were reduced and were akin to those with fathers in manual occupations whose parents stayed together.

In general, the outcomes for those who have experienced bereavement are little if at all different from those who have not done so. Subsequent research on further family change has shown that the effects on children of becoming part of a second family also seem to vary according to the type of disruption preceding it. New relationships following bereavement are associated with as good (occasionally better) average outcomes compared with children living with both their natural parents. Yet the comparison is often unfavourable between children whose parent lives with a new partner following separation or divorce and their peers from intact families (Kiernan 1992b; Cockett and Tripp 1994).

A further line of enquiry has compared the ‘transitions to adulthood’ made by young people. These ‘transitions’ include age of leaving education (and whether this was for financial reasons), of entering full-time employment, of leaving home (and whether for ‘negative’ reasons8), of cohabiting or getting married and of becoming a parent. Kathleen Kiernan (1992b) found that, overall, where family change or disruption was due to marital breakdown this was associated with young people making earlier adult transitions compared with children from intact families and that the differences were statistically significant. Little or no difference in the age of transition was found when comparing young people who lost a parent through death and whose parents had remained together. This general finding held whether their remaining parent had re­partnered or remarried or not. Kiernan (1992b) observed that the cause of the disruption rather than the disruption per se seemed important in affecting these transitions. None the less, the cause of the disruption seemed to be more important and influential for boys than for girls and the disruption itself more influential for girls.

Similar ‘transition to adulthood’ outcomes were analysed by Ni Bhrolchain (1993). She concludes that the data do not allow the results to be considered as more than provisional, nor do they ‘suggest that the group differences observed [here] result from the family experiences of the children involved’ (Ni Bhrolchain 1994:24). She comments as well that, while the data suggest some association between the two (the observed outcomes and the family experience), ‘the children of disrupted families are not distinctive in their experience’ (p. 25). While most children from all family groups leave school at the minimum school leaving age, none of the other outcomes is ‘the norm’ for children who have experienced family disruption.

Given the hue and cry about never-married lone mothers—and a debate that implies a degree of certainty about the development of their children—it may come as some surprise that there has been very little comparable research about either the development of their children or their experience of family life. There were very few such children in the longitudinal surveys of the 1940s and 1950s (where they were defined as ‘illegitimate’) and findings for them have been analysed only up to the age of 11 years. In general, their average life chances were found to be lower at birth compared with children from two-parent intact families, although their subsequent physical development was adequate. Measures of academic achievement suggested that these were likely to be lower for children of single lone parents than for those in intact two-parent families. But their results are not necessarily as low as those of children from a manual occupation family background whose parents have separated or divorced (Ferri 1976). Better results had been found on some measures by illegitimate children who remained living with their mother alone than by those who subsequently lived with both of their parents. This might suggest (as is discussed later) that it is the changes in relationships that such transitions bring rather than the family setting per se that are influential. The sample base for these findings was, however, very small.

The rise in the divorce rate since the 1960s has been linked in the public mind with apparently increasing criminal and delinquent behaviour of young people—or more accurately that of boys and young men. Research has found that children from backgrounds of multiple deprivation are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour and that the same is true for children who have experienced the separation or divorce of their parents—but with a weight towards minor offences (Utting et al. 1993). However, it is also the case that neither family disruption nor deprivation per se alone accounts for this. Rather it is, in aspects of children’s upbringing, particularly the nature and consistency of the care provided by, and their relationship with, their parents that is most influential. In other words, ‘The direct influence on children’s behaviour is…seen to be the quality of the relationship with, and between, their parents’ (Utting et al. 1993:20).

David Farrington (1994) describes three aspects of parent care that may be influential in this way. These are discipline (which should not be excessively harsh or inconsistent), supervision (parents need to be watchful and monitor their children’s activities) and parental attitude (warm and loving parents tend not to have delinquent children). Multiple deprivation and family disruption appear at first sight directly influential because they make it more difficult for parents to establish and maintain relationships and a home environment protective against delinquent behaviour. But they do not preclude it; indeed, there are circumstances in which the reverse may be the case.