Osborne Paper on the Impact of Shifting Family Dynamics on Child Wellbeing

The increasing rates of divorce, remarriage, and single parenting over the past half-century have dramatically impacted the nature of family structure and child wellbeing. CFRP director and LBJ professor Dr. Cynthia Osborne and her colleague Dr. Paula Fomby recent published Family Instability, Multipartner Fertility, and Behavior in Middle Childhood in the Journal of Marriage and Family addressing the complexities of family structure, specifically related to family instability, multipartner fertility, and child wellbeing.

Dr. Osborne is expert in social policy, poverty and inequality, family and child wellbeing, and family demography issues. 


The full paper is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12349/full.


Two concepts capture the dynamic and complex nature of contemporary family structure: family instability and multipartner fertility. Although these circumstances are likely to co-occur, their respective literatures have proceeded largely independently. The authors used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal birth cohort study including nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in hospitals in 20 U.S. cities, to consider these dimensions of dynamic family structure together, asking whether they independently predict children’s behavior problems at age 9. Frequent family instability was consistently predictive of higher predicted levels of behavior problems for children born to mothers who were unmarried, an association largely attenuated by factors related to family stress. Multipartner fertility was robustly related to self-reported delinquency and teacher-reported behavior problems among children born to mothers who were married.


  • Family structure transitions and multipartner fertility often co-occur: one in eight children born to parents who were married and almost one in two children born to parents who were unmarried in large U.S. cities experience both types of family change by age 9.
  • Family instability and multipartner fertility are associated with higher levels of behavioral problems in 9-year-old children, but the relationships vary across parents’ union status at birth.
  • Indicators of family context reflecting family stress theory diminished the observed association between family change and child behavior to a greater extent than did those related to family boundary ambiguity.
  • The magnitude of the association of family instability and multipartner fertility coefficients are similar for children born to mothers who were married or mothers who were unmarried, with the exception of the relationship between multipartner fertility and child-reported delinquency.