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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Well being of young people in different family circumstances

Ruth Weston


This article examines the financial, physical and emotional wellbeing of adolescents from sole mother and couple families, some of whose parents are in paid work and some not. Analysis is based on a sample of 1046 adolescents from a study of Australian living standards conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Questions addressed include: are adolescents living in sole-mother families faring better or worse than those living with two parents? What is the relationship between the employment status of parents and the wellbeing of these young people? Are they happier if their mothers stay at home? How troubled are they if their parents are unemployed?

This paper examines the financial, physical and emotional wellbeing of adolescents from sole-mother and couple families, some of whose parents are in paid work and some not. Analysis is based on the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study sample of 1046 adolescents, including secondary school students (395 boys and 433 girls) and school leavers living at home (120 boys and 98 girls), from four municipalities of Melbourne (Berwick, Werribee, Box Hill and Melbourne). The sample was divided in six groups as outlined in Table 1. Most adolescents were living with two parents (natural and/or step), with both these parents in paid work. Around 17 per cent lived with two parents with the father only in paid work, and around 16 per cent lived in sole-mother families with more of these mothers in paid work than not. The average age of young people in each of the six groups was similar (ranging from almost 15.5 years to almost 16 years).

Table 2 presents the measures examined where differences between family circumstances were significant. (See accompanying appendix for a description of the measures.) Not all adolescents responded to each measure, so data for some groups are based on only 18 to 22 boys and girls (taken separately). Results for boys and girls combined are thus presented in Table 2. Overall, there are only four areas in which boys and girls differed significantly. Boys reported better health than girls, while girls scored higher on the measure of warmth/sociability; and parents were more satisfied with daughters' progress in two areas - learning skills and getting on with peers. However, differences were small, with high satisfaction in these areas being expressed for both sons and daughters.


On all measures except 'poorness of health' relatively high scores indicate greater wellbeing.

Dual income, two-parent families

For all 20 measures, adolescents from dual income, two- parent families ranked highest or second highest in terms of wellbeing. These adolescents appeared to be doing very well materially, physically, socially and emotionally.

Families in which father only was employed

Those in families in which father only was employed ranked amongst the highest in terms of wellbeing for 12 of the 20 measures. Adolescents in this group appeared particularly healthy, and both adolescents and parents felt that their families were doing well financially (this group ranked third in median equivalent income). Parents appeared particularly satisfied with their childrens' learning skills, and the young people were particularly satisfied with themselves, their personal and emotional life, and life as a whole. Almost all mothers in these families reported that their adolescent child was happy most or almost all of the time. On only one measure - warmth/sociability - did these adolescents score relatively low in wellbeing.

Families headed by employed sole mothers

The group which ranked third in wellbeing were in families headed by employed sole mothers. These adolescents fared relatively poorly on only one measure - personal satisfaction with their health - and seemed to be doing particularly well in five areas - sense of mastery, warmth/sociability, satisfaction with recreation/leisure, equivalent household income, and feeling occupied rather than bored.

Sole mothers not in paid work

Although there were areas in which these young people were not faring as well as others, adolescents whose sole mothers did not have paid work were particularly satisfied with how well they got on with their parents. Mothers were especially happy with the way their children got on with others their own age, and with their general behaviour. On average these families had incomes below the poverty line. Not surprisingly, these adolescents were not very happy with family income, housing and living standards, and their mothers felt their children were not faring as well as other young people because of the financial situation.

Couple families in which mother only or neither parent was employed

There were two groups of families in which the father was not in paid work - in one, neither parent was employed, and in the other, the mother only was working - and both groups were experiencing poverty or near poverty. Overall, neither group was doing particularly well in other areas, although those in families in which neither parent was employed expressed relatively high satisfaction with their health. Where neither parent was employed, relatively low wellbeing on 17 of the 20 measures was apparent, while adolescents whose mothers (but not fathers) worked had relatively low wellbeing on 13 of the measures, including sense of mastery, warmth/sociability, satisfaction with themselves and with their relationship with their parents.


Some maintain that maternal employment has a detrimental effect on children. Yet as we have seen, young people whose mothers as well as fathers were employed were doing particularly well. It could be argued that mothers' paid work adversely affects their children only if they work full-time. Not surprisingly, for each of the three groups in which mothers were working, equivalent household income was significantly higher where mothers had a full-time as opposed to a part-time job. However, the emotional wellbeing of young people did not differ significantly.

It could also be argued that mothers' paid work adversely affects their children only if they were working when their children were very young - the assumption being that such children miss out on the attention they need from their mothers at this critical stage of their lives.However, although this study looked only at current jobs, when the 83 adolescents in dual income families whose mothers had been in their current job since they were pre-schoolers were compared with adolescents in other family circumstances, then much the same pattern of results emerged. On most measures, adolescents from dual income families had the highest or second highest wellbeing. Indeed, average satisfaction with life of such young people from dual income couple families was particularly high (7.70).

Although this analysis does not take into account the fact that some mothers not currently employed may have been working when their children were young, it is evident that young people from dual income families are faring well regardless of how long their mothers had been in paid work.


Interestingly, despite a general belief that children fare poorly in sole-mother families, a particularly strong sense of mastery was evident for these children, whether or not their mothers worked. The accompanying figure shows the highest proportion of young people with high mastery scores were those with sole mothers (43-45 per cent), followed by those whose fathers only or both parents worked (33-38 per cent), followed by the relatively few (18-20 per cent) whose fathers were not working.


It is possible that some of these results can be explained in terms of differences in other characteristics of these groups, such as non-English-speaking background and financial circumstances.

There was considerable variation in each group in the proportions of adolescents whose parents spoke a language other than English at home. This was most common for those in couple families in which neither parent had a job (59 per cent), followed by couple families where mothers but not fathers had a job (42 per cent), then sole-mother families where the mothers did not have a job (38 per cent). Speaking a language other than English at home was least common in couple families where both parents held a job (14 per cent) and in employed sole-mother families (9 per cent).

Separate multiple regression analysis was applied for each wellbeing measure to assess whether the six family groupings used in this analysis were significantly related to wellbeing when the following factors were controlled: language spoken at home, financial status, and sex and age of young person.

Having a father without a job was linked with lower wellbeing for most of the measures. In other words, the relatively low wellbeing of adolescents whose fathers were not working could not be explained simply by such factors as poor financial circumstances or high incidence of non- English-speaking background.


These results run counter to popular arguments that sole- mother families and families in which both parents work have detrimental effects on the emotional wellbeing of young people. Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be the case, unless perhaps, the sole mother does not have paid work. However, even in the latter case the young people seemed to fare well on most measures. Such results are consistent with recent previous studies of the longer-term effects of marriage breakdown on emotional wellbeing of children (Dunlop and Burns 1989; Funder 1993; Amato 1987).

The relatively low wellbeing of young people in families in which neither parent has a job is consistent with expectations. However, those whose mothers but not fathers held a paid job also indicated relatively low wellbeing. This is a neglected group in the literature.

For many families, the crisis of having a father out of work was recent - overall, nearly half the fathers had been out of work for less than 12 months. These adolescents had much the same wellbeing as those whose fathers had not been working for at least five years (including the never employed). That is, there is no evidence to suggest that the wellbeing of young people whose fathers have been recently unemployed will improve as they become accustomed to the situation.

This discussion has largely focused on relative rather than absolute wellbeing and it should be emphasised that, regardless of family circumstances, young people seemed to be faring well generally. Further, the six groups of young people did not differ significantly in their satisfaction with some aspects of their lives such as the number of close friends they had, relationships with other children in the household, and freedom or independence. Young people appear remarkably resilient, although their wellbeing may be 'dampened' in some areas when their fathers are out of paid work.


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  • Dunlop, R. and Burns, A. (1989),'Adolescents in Divorce: A Three-year Follow-up', A report to the Australian Institute of Family Studies on Phase Two of the Adolescents in Divorce Study.
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Appendix : Measures Of Wellbeing

Sense of mastery

Sense of mastery or personal control over circumstances represents each person's average rating on five items from the Pearlin and Schooler (1978) mastery scale - for example: 'I have little control over the things that happen to me' and 'I can do just about anything I really set my mind to do'. These were rated on scales from 1 'strongly disagree' to 5 'strongly agree'. Scoring was reversed for some statements, so that high scores represent high sense of mastery.


Interspersed with items on sense of mastery were six items tapping warmth/sociability taken from Headey and Wearing (1992) - for example: 'I really enjoy talking to people' and 'Most people think of me as somewhat distant and cold'. The same five-point rating scale was used, and ratings for some items were reversed so that high scores reflect relatively high warmth/sociability. Each person's average rating for the six items was derived. High scores on such measures are often treated as indicators of sound adjustment (Maxwell, Flett and Colhoun 1989; Rosenhan and Seligman 1984; Ryff 1989), and as factors which help people cope with stressful experiences (Antonovsky 1979; Kobasa 1982; Luther 1991; Rutter 1987). They are obviously related to self-esteem, with warmth/sociability being linked with social competence.

Poorness of health

Poorness of health refers to ratings of health ranging from 1 'excellent' to 5 'poor'. This is the only measure for which high scores refer to low wellbeing.

Satisfaction items

All satisfaction items were rated on scales ranging from 1 'extremely dissatisfied' to 9 'extremely satisfied'. Some of the items refer to material living standards (for example, family income and housing); others are more concerned with emotional or social wellbeing (for example, relationship with parents, personal/emotional life, and extent resemble ideal self - that is, 'the extent to which you are the kind of person you would like to be').

How child fares

The measure, 'how child fares compared with other children owing to family's financial situation' was worded:'In comparison with other children in Australia, would you say this child is better off or worse off because of the financial situation of your family?'. Parents used a rating scale from 1 'much worse off' to 5 'much better off', with the mid-point 3 'about the same'.

Equivalent household income

Equivalent household income is expressed relative to the poverty line, with the median for each group presented.

Usually occupied

Two percentages are shown in Table 2. The first, entitled 'usually occupied' refers to the proportions of young people reporting that they are usually occupied (as opposed to being bored most of the time, or sometimes bored and sometimes occupied). While feeling bored is clearly an unwelcome experience, being 'occupied' could refer either to distressingly high or enjoyable work loads. The latter interpretation appears the most likely for, compared with other young people, those who stated they were mostly occupied scored higher on other wellbeing measures included sense of mastery, warmth/sociability, and satisfaction with life.

Mostly happy

The last measure, 'mostly happy', refers to the percentage of parents who described their adolescent child as happy 'almost all the time' or 'most of the time' (as opposed to 'some of the time' or 'rarely or never').