Effects of Family Structure and the Experience of Parental Separation: A Study on Adolescents’ Well-Being

  • Sabine Walper Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich German Youth Institute
  • Carolin Thönnissen Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich
  • Philipp Alt Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich
Keywords: Parental separation, Divorce, Stepfamily, Adolescent well-being, Economic deprivation


Large numbers of studies, mostly from the U.S., have addressed the effects of parental separation and divorce, pointing to disadvantages of children and adolescents growing up in separated families. However, evidence on this topic varies across countries and is limited for Germany. Using longitudinal data from waves 1 and 3 of the German Family Panel pairfam, we investigated differences in adolescents’ well-being by comparing stable nuclear families (n = 1968), single mother families (n = 360), and stepfather families (n = 214), as well as an additional smaller group of adolescents whose parents separated between waves 1 and 3 (“prospective separators”; n = 76). Adolescents’ satisfaction with different domains of life (family, education/work, and their general life satisfaction) as well as their self-esteem were used as indicators of well-being. A series of multiple regression analyses tested the effects of family structure on well-being at T1 and changes in well-being over time, controlling for various background factors. Furthermore, likely mediation effects of infrequent contact to the non-resident father and economic strain were tested. The findings show (relatively minor) effects of parental separation, namely lower well-being among youth1 in single mother families compared to nuclear families. Disadvantages of youth in single mother families could only be partly explained by the higher financial strain generally experienced in these families. Youth in stepfather families reported a similar overall well-being as adolescents in nuclear families, but indicated a greater decrease in family satisfaction over time. Pre-separation disadvantages among prospective separators were limited to greater dissatisfaction with school. Infrequent contact with the non-resident father did not affect adolescents’ well-being. Effects of family structure did not differ between boys and girls, but maternal education moderated the effects of family structure on adolescents’ life satisfaction. Overall, the findings are in line with other evidence from Germany, which points towards only limited disadvantages of youth in separated or divorced families.
How to Cite
Walper, S., Thönnissen, C. and Alt, P. 2015. Effects of Family Structure and the Experience of Parental Separation: A Study on Adolescents’ Well-Being. Comparative Population Studies. 40, 3 (Oct. 2015). DOI:https://doi.org/10.12765/CPoS-2015-12.