Children living in unwed-mother homes are more likely to witness domestic violence than children growing up with their married mother and father, says a new analysis.
The finding is counterintuitive since mothers who have never married would appear to be less likely to get into fights at home with someone.
However, data show that the rate of witnessing domestic violence among children living with never-married mothers was 116 children per 1,000, “six times higher than the rate for children in intact families,” said psychologist Nicholas Zill, who published his findings at the Institute for Family Studies in Charlottesville, Va., in January.
Some of the fights involving single mothers were with their new boyfriends or partners, rather than the children’s fathers, he noted.
Children living with divorced or separated mothers had the highest risk of seeing physical violence in their homes, Mr. Zill found. Among these households, 144 children out of every 1,000 were exposed to family violence.
Mr. Zill’s analysis was based on data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The survey asked parents of more than 95,000 children aged 17 or younger whether their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians, or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch, or beat each other up.”
In married-parent homes, the rate for such domestic disturbances was 19 children out of every of 1,000.
Even when both biological parents lived with a child, the married homes were likely to be more peaceful than the cohabiting ones, Mr. Zill found.
The rate of exposure to domestic violence was 45 children per 1,000 in cohabiting-parent homes — more than double the risk of married-parent homes, he wrote.
Mr. Zill said his findings — which were adjusted for age, sex, race/ethnicity, family income and parent’s education level — showed that a child’s family structure was a better predictor of witnessing family violence than socioeconomic factors.
Mr. Zill noted that rates of domestic violence have “actually fallen in recent decades,” no doubt because the public disapproves and punishes such violence, and because modern women have more ways to financially escape an abusive relationship.
But for children in any home, family violence is stressful for them and may cause emotional and behavioral problems at home and at school.
It also “undercuts their respect and admiration for parents who engage in abusive behavior,” wrote Mr. Zill, who is the former head of children and family studies at Westat, a social science research corporation.