New research confirms something I have long suspected: There is a relationship between single parenthood and sociopathy that explains problems found in young people. Before I describe the research I have to give some background. Sociopathy is a set of personality traits that group together. These traits are also largely responsible for addiction and alcoholism. To read more about the connection between antisocial personality traits, addiction and alcoholism, see The Inner Triangle helps you understand sociopaths, psychopaths, addicts and alcoholics. I believe that people with sociopathic personality traits likely create many of the single parent families in Western countries.
The problem is that assessing parents for trait sociopathy, and relating that assessment to child outcome, is very difficult. It is much easier to study divorce and number of years living in a house with only one parent, then blame these two things for later problems. The issues, in my opinion, are what caused the divorce? And why are children living with only one parent? If I am right that sociopathy is the answer to these two questions for many families, then blaming divorce and single parenthood for problems will create even more problems. Many people who continue to share life with partners that have sociopathic traits do so “for the sake of the children.” However, continuing to live with a sociopathic partner often means that more children are born to that relationship AND existing children are further damaged.
When we consider outcomes for the children of people with sociopathic traits, we have to understand that the sociopathic parent contributes to both the genes and the environment of his offspring. For more on the genetic causes of sociopathy see Parenting the At Risk Child. Problems for children are therefore due to complex interactions between genetics and family environment.
In a recent paper Exposure to Single Parenthood in Childhood and Later Mental Health, Educational, Economic and Criminal Behavior Outcomes, Dr. David M Fergusson and colleagues from New Zealand report the results of a 25-year longitudinal study. They followed 746 boys and girls from birth to age 16, then followed up when the subjects were 21-25 years old.
These authors report that lower educational achievement, welfare dependence, low personal income, criminal arrest and conviction, and violence and property offenses were all significantly more common in young adults who grew up in single parent families. BUT before we blame single parenthood for these findings we have to look further. These authors also found that when they controlled for “family problems,” such as the parent’s criminal behavior and substance abuse, the association between single parenthood and these variables disappeared. The authors therefore conclude, “These findings clearly suggest that the associations between single parenthood and later adverse outcomes largely reflected the societal context within which the single parenthood occurred, rather than a direct effect of single parenthood on individual functioning.”
These authors further point out, “there have been ongoing social and political debates that have focused on the need to reduce rates of single parenthood to increase life opportunities for children. In general, the results of this 25-year longitudinal study do not support this focus.”
Where should the focus of our efforts to improve the lot of children be? We need to focus on the very deleterious effects of life with a sociopathic parent! We also have to work to educate people about sociopathy. Sociopaths generally mate through deception. The partners of sociopaths need good guidance about what to do once the deception is discovered. Staying with a sociopath “for the sake of the children” is likely the wrong answer.