Parental Mental Health and Child Development: The Effects of Assortative Mating

Sarah O. Meadows, Princeton University
Sara McLanahan, Princeton University
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University

Although the negative impact of parents’ mental illness on child health is well-documented, this relationship has rarely been examined in the context of non-married families. Using the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) this analysis exploits the full range of relationship types, including married, cohabiting, and non-resident relationships, to examine the independent and multiplicative effects on children of having one or two unhealthy parents. Results show that maternal mental illness has a strong, positive relationship with behavior problems in children, indicating that healthy fathers are poor buffers of unhealthy mothers, regardless of family type. In families where fathers spend more time with their children they exacerbate maternal illness when they are also unhealthy; however, in families where unhealthy fathers are less involved in their child’s life they are less likely to exacerbate existing maternal illness. Few gender differences are found in these effects.

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Presented in Session 27: The Demography of Mental Health