Rocky families, not same-sex parents, blamed for kids’ troubles in adulthood

New analysis rebuts earlier study linking gay households to problems later in life

gay parents with child

FAMILY TIES  A reanalysis of a controversial study finds that adult problems initially attributed to having grown up with gay parents mainly stem from having experienced family instability, whether or not parents were the same sex.


Family instability — not gay parents, as concluded in an earlier, controversial study — primarily causes children to develop more than their share of life problems when they hit adulthood, a new analysis finds.

Kids who experience numerous changes in family structure do particularly poorly as grown-ups, whether they grow up with same-sex parents, both of their biological parents or a single parent, says Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. It’s the accumulation of various family transitions, including divorce and a single parent’s partner, or even a grandparent, moving in, that heralds later problems for children, Rosenfeld reports September 2 in Sociological Science.

“One way to think about the similarly negative impact of different family transitions is that children crave stability,” Rosenfeld says. “Any new adult in the home creates potential for new rules and disagreements.” It’s also possible that in some families, grandparents come to stay only when the home situation is already chaotic, he adds.

Rosenfeld revisited a national family structure survey of 2,988 people, ages 18 to 39, conducted by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 and 2012. Using that data, Regnerus had previously reported that, compared with participants from intact biological families, those from families headed by a gay mother displayed a surplus of problems, including depression, unemployment, criminal convictions, marijuana use, poor physical health and relationship difficulties (SN: 12/15/12, p. 16).

The new analysis shows that an increasing number of family transitions, combined with parents’ limited education and low income, account for nearly all adult problems that Regnerus had linked to being raised by gay parents. Rosenfeld did find that having same-sex parents contributed to two specific outcomes: a lower sense of safety in one’s childhood family and having better-quality current relationships, a positive thing.

“Rosenfeld’s findings suggest that there are few, if any, differences between outcomes for children from same-sex-parent and two–biological-parent families,” says sociologist Simon Cheng of the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Regnerus says Rosenfeld has taken a step toward explaining how family structure influences child development. But it’s a mistake, he says, to assume that any one factor, whether it’s family transitions or parents’ sexual orientation, controls children’s later depression, drug use and other difficulties.

Researchers need to trace “causal pathways” of factors leading to particular problems, Regnerus proposes. In the national survey, same-sex households with children typically formed via failed heterosexual marriages that produced kids. Family instability stoked by gay parents’ tendency to form fragile romantic relationships may have contributed to a possible, but still unstudied, pathway that linked same-sex unions to kids’ emotional and social problems, Regnerus says. 

Rosenfeld doubts that such a pathway existed. He calculated that only 75 participants in the survey had ever lived with same-sex parents, and for an average of just 3.7 years. These adults reported an average of 6.79 family transitions during childhood and early adolescence, Rosenfeld says, versus 1.84 family transitions for adults who had never lived with gay parents.

Most family transitions for children of same-sex couples resulted from a biological parent losing custody, not a greater number of breakups among gay couples, Rosenfeld found. Custody-related changes for a child included being sent to live with foster parents, moving to another parent’s house and adjusting to the arrival of that parent’s new partner.

Large numbers of childhood family transitions (4.11 on average) also accounted for many problems among 1,296 participants who had lived at least one year with single mothers, Rosenfeld says. Being raised by a single mother was associated with a handful of issues, including completing less schooling and contracting more sexually transmitted infections than peers from intact biological families.

Excess numbers of family transitions for kids with gay parents are likely to shrink substantially in the near future, Rosenfeld says. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States means that gay parents now have the right to seek legal custody of their children. Before that, the legal cards were stacked against unmarried same-sex couples winning custody battles.

In a separate reanalysis of the national survey data, Cheng and sociologist Brian Powell of Indiana University Bloomington estimate that only 51 participants plausibly lived with gay parents for at least one year. A sample that small limits the statistical power to identify any genuine effects of same-sex parents on children, Cheng and Powell conclude in the July Social Science Research.

Long-term studies are also needed to untangle factors, such as parental drug abuse and personality disorders, that incite family instability, Rosenfeld says. 

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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