Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk in Single Parent Families? ...
Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk in
Single Parent Families?
VIBHA MAHAJAN AND DEEPALI SHARMA
The study examined the mental health status, school adjustment and scholastic
achievement of adolescents in single parent families with reference to gender and
family structure. The sample comprised 93 adolescents and their single mothers. Data
was gathered using Developmental Psychopathology Check List of Children, School
Adjustment Inventory, and the Scholastic Achievement record of the adolescents. Re-
sults were analysed using multivariate ANOVA and Pearson's correlation. The results
revealed that no differences existed in the mental health status and school adjustment
of adolescents by gender. However, significant gender differences were evident for
scholastic achievement. Regarding family structure, adolescents from nuclear families
were significantly better adjusted in school than their counterparts from single parent
families. The results also indicated that adolescents who had better mental health sta-
tus were better adjusted and achieved more in schools. The study suggests planning
of intervention strategies and undertaking active research on guidance and counsel-
ling involving mothers and adolescents in single parent families.
Ms. Vibha Mahajan and Ms. Deepali Sharma are with the Department of Home
Science, S.D.A.M. College, Dinanagar, Gurdaspur District, Punjab
INTRODUCTION
Repeated concern has been expressed over the rising phenomenon of
single p a r e n t families and their impact on family dynamics and
well-being of individual members. Countries like the United States of
America (24 per cent), former Soviet Union (21 per cent) and Sweden
(17 per cent) have reported the highest rates of single p a r e n t families.
(Burns and Scott, 1994). Scholars further estimate t h a t over half of all
children in the United States of America will spend some portion of
their youth living in a single parent family, typically a mother-headed
family (Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991; US Bureau of the Census,
2000) with divorce as a major cause, followed by unwed motherhood
and then widowhood (Burns and Scott, 1994).
Even though a substantial amount of research h a s been done on
single p a r e n t families in the United States of America, particularly
towards adjustment to divorce (Amato, 1994) and its correlates,
relatively limited work has been done on the situation of single p a r e n t
families in developing nations like India (India: Office of the
Registrar-General, 2001; Singh, 1996). Data are also not readily

354 Vibha Mahajan and Deepali Sharma
available in India t h a t focus on the psychological impact on the children
of single p a r e n t families (Bharat, 1991).
Estimates in India indicate t h a t about seven per cent of all family
units likely to have dependent children, are single parent family units,
where one p a r e n t is absent due to death, divorce or separation. In over
80 per cent of these cases, death of the spouse is the cause of single
parenthood and more t h a n 70 per cent of the single parents are women
(India: Office of the Registrar-General, 1991).
The frequency of divorce is steadily on the rise due to recent social
and legal developments (Siganporia, 1993). The 1955 Hindu Marriage
Act has made divorce easier to obtain, especially for women. A revision
of this Act in 1976 made a form of no-fault divorce available by m u t u a l
consent (Sharma, 1989). The 1991 Census of India (India: Office of the
Registrar-General, 1991) showed t h a t there were as many as 6,92,640
males and 1,427,600 females divorced in 1991. A Union Law Ministry
Report (India: Ministry of Law, 1994) shows a 12 per cent yearly
increase in the divorce rate over three consecutive years all over India
(1991-1993). Further, the maximum numbers of divorcees are in the
age range of 20-44 years among the females (India: Office of the
Registrar-General, 1991) with the females being most likely to get the
custody of their children after divorce (Pothen, 1986).
However, the actual percentage and number of divorcees may be
much higher t h a n the reported figures as divorce is still considered to
be a stigma in the Indian society and many individuals probably fail to
report their true marital status (Amato, 1994). Furthermore, a high
percentage of married couples who separate permanently never file for
divorce, either because of their wish to avoid social disapproval or
simply because of the lengthy legal procedures and lack of awareness
(Amato, 1994; Leela, 1995).
In Chandigarh, where the present study was carried out, single
parent families comprise 3.7 per cent of the total married population.
Within this, the total percentage of widows is 71.4 per cent and t h a t of
divorced/separated women is 2.38 percent (India: Office of the
Registrar-General, 1991).
This study focuses on adolescents in single parent families (widowed
and divorced mothers). Limited research work is available on the
adolescents' mental health and related issues of school adjustment and
scholastic achievement, particularly from single p a r e n t families. In the
Indian context, the studies t h a t are available on the effect of single
parent families on children and adolescents are primarily on the
socio-emotional and economic consequences (Bharat, 1988b;
Shanmugam, 1999).
Mental Health of Adolescents from Single Parent Families
Some of the previous research work done on children from single p a r e n t
families in India h a s dealt with custody arrangements of the children

Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk... 355
(Mehta, 1975), attachment of the children with the mother or the father
after divorce (Pothen, 1986), socioeconomic and socio-emotional
hardships faced by individual family members after divorce or death of
the spouse (Bharat, 1988b; Desai, 1991), and effects of a broken home
on the children (Kumthekar, 1991). However, limited work is available
related to mental health issues among adolescents in India,
particularly from single parent families. The present study examines
the same.
Researches indicate t h a t the mental health status (MHS) of children
who are deprived of parental care is low and there is a significant
relationship between MHS of children and the degree of parental
deprivation. The MHS of completely deprived (maternal and paternal)
children is the lowest (Reddy, 1987; Steinhausen, Aster, and Gobel,
1987). An unpublished report by the Young Women Christian's
Association of India shows t h a t children of divorced parents experience
fear of separation, loneliness, and unhappiness. Socially, they are likely
to be either aggressive or withdrawn (cited from Bharat, 1988a).
Further, they have greater incidence of emotional and school
achievement problems with possible long-term negative consequences
(Lansdale, Cherlin and Keirnan, 1995). The studies reviewed above
indicate t h a t adolescents from single p a r e n t families are likely to
manifest emotional and behavioural maladjustment.
Further, Davar (1999) in a review work on socio-demography and
mental distress, highlights t h a t in India, between widowed men and
women, women are more frequently depressed. Her review work also
suggests t h a t widowhood makes women more predisposed to neuroses.
As a result, the children also report suffering from consequences in the
psychological and socioeconomic sphere to a comparatively larger
degree. The impact of single parenthood on children is elucidated by a
study on the status of Indian widows by Chen and Dreze (1992) who
point out t h a t the helplessness often associated with widowhood has an
influence on the health and well-being of children in particular other
t h a n the widows themselves.
Gender Differences and Mental Health Status
Research evidence also indicates t h a t prolonged separation from the
fathers affects boys more in comparison with girls and t h a t the boys
exhibit more behavioural problems. The absence of fathers who act as
role models for the boys is considered to be the main cause for this
phenomenon (Sood and Misra, 1995; Srinivasan and Raman, 1987).
However, Khatri (1970, cited from Kapur, 1995) reports t h a t there are
gender inequalities in traditional Indian families, which affects the
mental health of both boys and girls. For boys parenting practices are
conducive to positive mental health whereas for girls, differential
t r e a t m e n t may result in the development of a negative self-image.
Therefore, the female child is at risk for several mental health

356 Vibha Mahajan and Deepali Sharma
problems. It can be expected t h a t differential opportunities and
experiences within the family, especially in the single parent families,
influence the mental health status of adolescents by gender.
Family Structure and Mental Health Status
Epidemiological studies conducted in rural and urban communities
show a higher percentage of psychiatric illness in nuclear families as
compared to joint families. This is because the latter provides more
security in terms of love, warmth, social and economic support, which
has a positive influence on the mental health (Sethi and Manchanda,
1978; Sethi, Manchanda and Sharma, 1979; Sethi and Sharma, 1980;
Sharma, Sethi and Bhiman, 1984). This is particularly relevant for the
single p a r e n t families wherein the primary kin are seen to share the
emotional feelings and also care for the well-being of single mothers
and their children (Aruna and Reddy, 2001). Further, the joint family
still remains an ideal in the Indian society and single women along with
their children are likely to return to their maternal home and stay with
parents, uncles or brothers (Leela, 1995).
The reviewed studies on gender and family structure are based on
two parent families. There is limited evidence available on the mental
health and well-being of adolescents from single parent families in the
Indian context. Even though it is likely t h a t boys when compared with
girls, and adolescents from joint families when compared with
adolescents from nuclear families will have a comparatively better
mental health status, this is an area t h a t needs further exploration.
The present study aims at assessing the same.
School Adjustment and Scholastic Achievement of Adolescents
A related issue with the mental health of adolescents from single
parent families is their school adjustment and performance. Blum,
Boyle and Offord (1988) reported in their study t h a t children with poor
school performance are 1.7 times more likely to be from single p a r e n t
families t h a n two parent families. Further, research evidence indicates
that the consequence of single parenthood on the academic
performance of the adolescents is likely to be greater for boys as
compared to girls (Blanchard and Biller, 1971, cited from Bharat, 1986;
Krein and Beller, 1988).
Several studies show t h a t children who live with single parents
during adolescence receive less guidance, less help in school work, and
less encouragement t h a n children who live with both their parents
(Astone and Maclanahan, 1991; Cherian and Cherian, 1995; Singh and
Gill, 1986). However, this is an area t h a t needs to be further reviewed
in the Indian context.



Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk... 359
Objectives
The researches reviewed point out to the increase in the percentage of
single parent families and their impact on the adolescents. However, in
light of the limited work available in the Indian context on single
parent families, the present study was conducted with the objectives of
examining the:
1. mental health status, school adjustment and scholastic
achievement of adolescents in single parent families with reference
to gender (boys/girls) and family structure (joint/nuclear).
2. relationship between the mental health status of adolescents,
their school adjustment, and scholastic achievement.
MATERIAL AND METHODS
The present cross-sectional study was conducted in Chandigarh and its
satellite towns of Panchkula and Mohali. A sample of 93 adolescents in
the age group of 10-18 years (mean age 13.95 years) and their single
mothers (64 widows and 29 divorcees) were randomly selected. They
were further sub-divided into the type of family structure
(joint/nuclear) and gender (boys/girls). The sample consisted of urban,
middle class families. The majority of the mothers were graduates and
post-graduates (71 per cent) and working (81 per cent).
The sample was selected from schools in the area by contacting the
students after obtaining consent from the Principals. Advocates were
contacted in the District Court for the addresses of divorcees. A total of
50 schools were selected on the basis of stratified random sampling
method.
The following measures were used for the study:
Background Information
A self-structured personal information sheet was prepared to collect
background information of the families. Both the English and Hindi
versions of this form were made available. It contained questions
regarding demographic factors, mother's working hours, hours at
home, and work delegation in the family.
Developmental Psychopathology Checklist for Children
The checklist determined the mental health of the adolescents. Both
the English and Hindi versions of this checklist were available. The
Development Psychopathology Checklist for Children (DPCL) (Kapur,
Barnabas, Reddy, Rozario and Uma, 1995) is validated against a
well-known Western tool, the Child Behaviour Checklist (CBCL)
developed by Achenbach and Edelbrock (1983). It points to syndromes
relevant in the Indian context. The list with 124 items includes
sub-categories of (a) developmental history, (b) developmental problem
disorders, (c) psychopathology (hyperkinesias, conduct disorders,

360 Vibha Mahaian and Deepali Sharma . .
learning disorders, emotional disorders, obsessive compulsive neurosis,
somatic disorders, and psychoses), (d) psychosocial stressors, (e)
temperamental profile, and (f) supportive factors.
The subject (parent) is asked to mark 'present' if the item response is
positive and mark 'absent' if the item response is negative (except from
item 6 to 10 of the checklist). 'Present' scores are added for each of the
sub-categories and they are compared with cut off scores available for
the first nine sub-categories. Higher scores above the cut off value are
indicative of mental health problems among the subjects. The
interclass correlation coefficient of the entire checklist is 0.965
(significant at 0.001 level). It also has satisfactory inter-rater reliability
and validity.
School Adjustment Inventory
The School Adjustment Inventory (Bhagia, 1968) is a 165 items
inventory in Hindi used for studying the school adjustment of
secondary and higher secondary school students. The inventory
consists of five categories covering all the main aspects of school life:
academic matters (A), schoolmates (S), school administration and
general environment (G), teachers (T), and self-satisfaction at school
(P). T e s ' , 'No' and 'Question Mark' are the options given to the subjects
for each item to respond on. Letter grade norms are given and high
scores indicate better adjustment at the school (see Table 2 for scoring).
The test-retest reliability coefficient as given by the Bhagia (1968) is
.96.
Scholastic Achievement
The percentage marks of the last exams taken by the adolescent were
gathered using the report cards. For data collection, families were
individually approached and their consent was taken. The significance
of the study was explained to them. Both the mother and the adolescent
were given instructions on the questionnaires, which were
administered on them. Second home visit were made to collect the filled
questionnaires and to clarify and doubts.
RESULTS
Mental Health of Adolescents in Single Parent Families
General Linear Model Multivariate ANOVA test was used for group
differences by gender and family structure. The means and standard
deviations of the 13 sub-categories of mental health were computed (see
Table 1).
Results reveal t h a t none of the sub-categories of mental health are
close or above the cut-off values. Hence, adolescents in single parent
families do not suffer from mental health problems. As per ANOVA, the
main effect of gender is marginally significant for developmental

Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk... 361
problem disorders such as clumsiness, breath holding, stuttering/
stammering (F= 4.14, p<.05), stressors such as problem with parents,
inconsistent discipline, adolescents living with their single parent (F =
5.22, p<.03), wherein boys showed more problems t h a n girls. Gender
difference is also evident for the dimension of temperament which deals
with management, independence, sensitivity for others and self (F =
5.40, p<.02). The main effect of family structure is marginally
significant for conduct disorders such as stubbornness, disobedience,
aggressiveness (F=4.19, p<.05). The interaction (gender X family
structure) indicates t h a t results are significant for only one
sub-category namely, developmental history problem (F=3.14, p<.08)
(Figure 1). However, the overall results point out t h a t there are no
differences in mental health status by gender or by family structure.
FIGURE 1: Group Differences in Developmental History Problem among
Adolescents
School Adjustment and Scholastic Achievement of Adolescents in
Single Parent Families

As per the scale (Bhagia, 1968), total school adjustment of adolescents
in single parent families' fall in the category of 'good' (M=122.92,
SD=25.22) (See Table 2). The data was further analysed to examine the
adolescent's adjustment to various aspects of school life. Group
differences by gender and family structure are given in Table 2. As per
ANOVA, the main effect of gender is marginally significant for
adolescents' adjustment with their schoolmates M[boys]: 25:31;
M[girls]: 27.20), and teachers (M[boys]: 26,43; M[girls]: 29.53) t h a n
boys. The result, therefore, indicates t h a t the trend is towards the
significance of gender.

362 Vibha Mahajan and Deepali Sharma
TABLE 2: ANOVA for School Adjustment and Scholastic Achievement of
Adolescents in Single Parents Families
Variables
Independent Variables
df
Mean
F
Square
School
Gender
74.73
1.98
Adjustment
Type of Family
185.92
4.94*
(Academic
Gender x type of family
11.23
0.29
Matters)
School
Gender
81.033
3.49*
Adjustment
Type of Family
169.38
7.29**
(School Mates)
Gender x type of family
60.53
2.60
School
Gender
8.49
0.23
Adjustment
Type of Family
22.39
0.60
(General School Gender x type of family
19.42
0.52
Environment)
School
Gender
218.54
3.59*
Adjustment
Type of Family
245.83
4.04*
(Teachers)
Gender x type of family
33.65
0.55
School
Gender
17.34
0.67
Adjustment
Type of Family
81.33
3.16
(self-satisfaction) Gender x type of family
22.01
0.85
School
Gender
1652.51
2.74
Adjustment
Type of Family
3018.15
5.00*
-Total
Gender x type of family
330.74
0.55
Scholastic
Gender
1284.30
7.92**
Achievement
Type of Family
51.61
0.32
Gender x type of family
2.39
0.02
Source: *P<.05; **p<.01
Note: Scoring
Analysing family structure for the variables of school adjustment
and scholastic achievement, ANOVA results reveal significant
F-values for adolescents adjustment to academic matters (M[nuclear]:
25.38; M[joint]: 22.46), their liking for schoolmates (M[nuclear]: 27.62;
M[joint] 25.04) and their total school adjustment (M[nuclear]: 128.45;
M(joint]: 117.28). Adolescents' liking for their teachers is marginally

Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk... 363
significant (M[nuclear]: 29.70; M[joint]: 26.52). The above results
reveal t h a t adolescents living in nuclear families show better school
adjustment t h a n adolescents living in joint families. None of the
interactions are significant.
Adolescents displayed average scholastic achievement (M=67.52,
SD=13.09). Results from Table 2 also indicate t h a t girls have higher
scholastic achievement t h a n boys with a significant F-value (M[boys]:
63.42; M[girls]: 70.98).
Relationship between Mental Health and Adolescents, their School
Adjustment and Scholastic Achievement in Single Parent Families
Pearson's correlation was used to determine the relationship among
variables. Gender-wise correlation between the scores of mental health,
school adjustment and scholastic achievement reveal t h a t within the 13
sub-categories of mental health, there is a significant positive
correlation, except for obsessive-compulsive neurosis.
Analysing the various sub-categories of mental health with the total
school adjustment of adolescents, the results reveal t h a t for girls
conduct disorders (r=-.30, p<.03) and stressors (r=.28, p<.04) are
negatively correlated with total school adjustment. This implies t h a t
girls who are low on conduct disorders and are less predisposed to
stressors, have better total school adjustment. For boys, temperament
is negatively correlated with total school adjustment (f=-.37, p<-01)
whereas no significant correlation is evident for girls.
The sub-categories of mental health are also correlated with
scholastic achievement of adolescents. Results indicate t h a t for boys,
development problem disorder (r=-.38, p<.01), hyperkinesias (r = -.004),
and learning disorders such as school refusal, poor school performance,
reading, writing and arithmetic difficulties (r = -.48, p<.001) are
negatively correlated with scholastic achievement. For girls, stressors
are negatively correlated with scholastic achievement (r = -.30, p<.03).
While studying the variables of school adjustment, the results reveal
t h a t they are positively correlated with each other in both boys and
girls whereas no significant correlation is evident for the variables of
school adjustment with scholastic achievement.
Thus, the above results reveal t h a t there is a significant negative
correlation between mental health problems, school adjustment and
scholastic achievement of adolescents in single parent families. The
previous results of this study on school adjustment are supported by the
results of correlation, which suggest t h a t adolescents from nuclear
families who are low on conduct disorders such as stubbornness,
disobedience, disruption, aggression, truancy, are better adjusted in
schools (r = -.29, p<.04). The results also reveal t h a t for adolescents
from nuclear families, conduct disorders are low as compared to
adolescents from joint families. Therefore, adolescents from nuclear
families are better adjusted in schools.

364 Vibha Mahajan and Deepali Sharma
Highlights of Results
1. Adolescents in this study did not suffer from mental health
problems.
2. There is no significant difference in the mental health status by
gender of family structure.
3. Subjects displayed good school adjustment.
4. No significant differences existed in the school adjustment by
gender.
5. Adolescents from nuclear families were significantly better
adjustment in schools t h a n their counterparts from joint
families.
6. Adolescents and average scholastic achievement with girls
having significantly higher achievement t h a n boys.
7. A significant negative correlation was displayed between mental
health problems, school adjustment, and scholastic achievement
of adolescents in single parent families.
DISCUSSION
The findings indicate t h a t the effect of single p a r e n t families may not be
entirely negative for adolescents in India. The results of our study are
in contrast with much of the published literature on single p a r e n t
families in India. Many studies on this subject tend to overemphasise
on the negative aspects and the resulting implications of being a single
parent and the possible consequences on the children and undermine
the strengths of being in a single p a r e n t family. John Cloud (2003) in a
special issue of the Time magazine provides a very interesting insight
into 'how we get labelled' (p.48) and cautions that a label can sometimes
become a stigma. Therefore, an effort needs to be made in
understanding the child and the single mother in totality and mention
the positive as well as negative aspects of growing up.
In the present study, though the children do display a negative
correlation between mental health, academic adjustment, and
scholastic achievement and display some borderline problems in the
dimension of mental health and also showed differences in the area of
family structure for academic adjustment, nowhere do the results
match up with the popular notion t h a t is usually associated with
children from single parent families t h a t they will not be properly
disciplined, will be very troubled, will be juvenile offenders, will be
someone with a low self-esteem, will be at an enhanced risk of childhood
psychopathology, and will display acute mental health related
problems (Chopra, 1982; Roy, 1980; Wig, Verma, and Shah, 1969).
An effort, therefore, needs to be made in understanding the varied
factors t h a t can have a probable impact on the adolescents in the
present study Firstly, the period of being in a single parent family
needs to be understood. Majority of the adolescents in the present study

Are Adolescents at Mental Health Risk... 365
(63.4 per cent) had lost their father in the time duration of five years
and above followed by 19.3 percent of them in the time duration of one
to three years. The popular saying t h a t 'time is the biggest healer'
might hold some t r u t h while describing the situation of these children.
A subject (Code No. 45), while describing if he felt any personality
changes after the demise/separation of his father points out t h a t 'I don't
remember much since I was very young then'.
Secondly, in India the family plays an important mediator and does
provide an emotional buffer to the children going through the initial
t r a u m a of their father's loss. A uniqueness of the Indian family is t h a t
even though there might be stresses and tensions among the family
members, emphasis is put on interdependence, particularly in the joint
family. Families rally around for support at times of need, crisis and
stress. This finding, however, is contrary to the general belief t h a t the
differential opportunities and experiences within the family, especially
in the single parent families influence the health status for adolescents
by gender. Sinha (1984) reports t h a t in the phase of transition, these
features have altered. Now boys and girls are treated equally. There
could be other reasons such as mother's education and period of loss of
father, which are based on the demographic profile of the present
sample. The finding t h a t majority of the mothers are educated
(graduates = 43 per cent, postgraduates = 27 per cent )is reflected in the
perception of equality among the children.
Luthra (1996) also supports the results by reporting t h a t the family
structure in India may nuclearise under the influence of modernisation
and urbanisation, but will retain the strategic features of the joint
family. Thus, adolescents, whether living in a nuclear or joint family,
will not have reduced kinship ties and this, further, will not have an
impact on the mental health status of adolescents in single parent
families.
IMPLICATIONS
Results of this study have crucial implications for single parent families
and counsellors. When planning programs for single parent families.
Especially in the Indian context where comprehensive programs for the
benefits of single mothers in general and divorced mothers in particular
are still in the infancy stage, caution needs to be t a k e n while
addressing the target group. Since the family for the single mothers
holds so much importance and since many a times there are stress
levels due to misunderstandings among the members, programs on
family counselling need to be made available following the
demise/separation of the spouse t h a t look at involving the family as a
group inclusive of the mother, her children, and the immediate family
members.
Supportive interventions are further recommended for children
displaying problems because Malhotra (2003) very aptly points out t h a t

366 Vibha Mahajan and Deepali Sharma
in developing countries certain mental health related problems may
not necessarily denote deep ingrained problems. Many a times, in the
Indian situation, young children show dramatic recovery with simple
timely interventions. Caution only needs to be taken in interpreting the
symptoms in context of the life circumstances of the children. It would
also be relevant to study the time gap since the absence of the father
and understand the effect of the loss in relation to direct measures of
coping of the adolescents.
Malhotra (1998) highlights the need to evolve appropriate models of
intervention typically for the developing countries as opposed to
replicating programmes from Western countries. The author stresses
on the need to develop models of intervention t h a t are rooted in the
Socio-cultural and philosophical traditions of a country. Finally, there
is a far greater need for the participation of families, community, and
non-governmental organisations to work towards a greater facilitation
of removal of ignorance and a change of attitude towards single parent
families at the grassroots level. Families need to be made aware of and
be.educated about the various social policies and family legislations
t h a t can affect them directly or indirectly, so t h a t they can utilise their
benefits and be cautioned against exploitation.
CONCLUSION
The family plays an important role in India where the transition is still
in motion. Even if geographical 'jointness' is not possible, an effort can
be made to develop an environment in which emotional, financial or
other links are maintained. Role of the counsellors in schools and in
various women's organisations needs to be encouraged involving both
mothers and adolescents in single parent families. It would also be
relevant to study the time gap since the absence of the father and
understand the effect of the loss in relation to direct measures of coping
of the adolescents
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