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FAMILY PORTRAIT: Single parent families and transitions over time

The University of Sheffield has published a series of policy briefings on working against the challenges faced by children and ensuring they have the best possible chances in life. The four policy briefings cover: the effectiveness of early intervention; single parent families; the role of voluntary organisations in supporting and monitoring young carers; the services provided for young people leaving care.

The Office for National Statistics reports that, in 2017, there were around 1.8 million single parent headed households with dependent children in the UK, representing 22% of families with dependent children. This proportion has been relatively static over the past 20 years. However, despite single parent families being a consistent feature of contemporary family life in the UK, assumptions of the negative impact of living in a single parent family often dominate policy discussions of child wellbeing.

Many studies have explored differences between children and young people in single parent families compared to two-parent households, repeatedly concluding that diverse experiences and outcomes occur independent of their family form. Children’s outcomes are affected by a broad range of factors such as household income, parental health and wellbeing, and family size, which play a significant role, regardless of their family type.

What is lesser known, however, is how transitions into and out of single parenthood affect children’s outcomes. Research often focuses on cross-sectional data, which does not allow us to capture or explore the intrinsically fluid and dynamic structure of family life that many experience. Consequently, there may be an assumption that children’s family environments are fairly static over their childhood, or that, at most, allowance is only needed for a single event such as parental divorce or remarriage.

Moreover, there is arguably an over-reliance on data collection methods that equate ‘family’ with ‘households’, potentially misrepresenting and underestimating some single parent headed family units; i.e. a single parent with dependent children living with other adults, such as their parents or friends. This household approach also has the potential to ignore significant family connections that occur between households.

In this research, we use the rich longitudinal data from Understanding Society to examine changing family dynamics for

parents and children experiencing single parenthood. Specifically, we have explored what the experiences of over 27,800 households with children, over a six-year period, tell us about:

  • How common it is to experience single parenthood, as a permanent or transitory family type;
  • Movements into and out of different family types over time;
  • Relationships within the family; and
  • Children’s self-reported wellbeing within different family types.