Methods: We used an analytic sample of unmarried mothers and their children who participated in the most recent wave of the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing (FFCW) study (n= 1875) to examine relationships proposed by the family stress model. We employed a mediation structural equation model to examine the direct and indirect relationships between maternal perceptions of economic hardships, stress, and adolescent reports of anxiety and depression. Latent variables for economic hardship were assessed by 11 dichotomous variables describing potential economic strains (e.g. not able to pay utility bills), maternal stress was assessed by 4 items on a 4-point scale accounting for potential experiences with stress (e.g. being a parent is harder than I thought it would be), adolescent anxiety was assessed by 6, 4-point scale items derived from the Brief Symptom Inventory 18, and adolescent depression symptoms were assessed by 5, 4-point scale items derived from the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale
Results: Mothers in the sample averaged 40.03 years of age (SD= 6.03 years), and their children averaged 15.63 years of age (SD= 0.99 years), 72.6% (1354) of these families in this sample lived between 0-199% of the federal poverty level. The measurement model of the 4 latent variables yielded acceptable fit (x2 [293 df]= 695.37, RMSEA [CI]= 0.03 (0.02- 0.03), CFI = 0.98, TLI= 0.97), as did the structural model with specified directional relationships and control variables (x2 [362 df]= 690.66, RMSEA [CI]= 0.03 (0.02- 0.03), CFI = 0.97, TLI= 0.97). The structural model revealed fully mediated relationships between maternal perceptions of economic hardships, stress and adolescent depression and anxiety, that is, the relationship between economic hardship and adolescent depression and anxiety was fully explained by maternal stress. Economic stress was associated with increased maternal stress, which in turn was associated with greater levels of adolescent depression and anxiety symptoms.
Discussion: The number of families headed by single mothers continues to rise in the US and it is therefore crucial for social work practitioners and researchers to understand how the unique economic characteristics of these families may influence adolescent health outcomes. Our findings highlight that maternal perceptions of economic hardships indirectly influence their children’s mental health via increased maternal stress. Moreover, the relationship between economic hardship and adolescent mental health was completely explained by increased maternal stress. Interventions and policies aimed at assuaging economic hardships experienced by single mothers may lead to better mental health outcomes of their adolescent children.