Abstract: Family Transitions and Dating Behaviors Among Adolescents Raised in Urban Households (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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3P Family Transitions and Dating Behaviors Among Adolescents Raised in Urban Households

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Steven Hoffman, PhD, Assistant Professor, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
Kaitlin Ward, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Heidi Adams Rueda, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX
Background and Purpose: Family dynamics research suggests that children who do not grow up with two parents or who experience changes in their core family structure during their formative years are more likely to experience negative outcomes in adolescence. While various psychological, educational, and social outcomes have been examined over the past few decades, one area that has been understudied is the impact of changing family structures on adolescent dating behaviors. Given the rise in divorce and separation rates, single parenthood, cohabitation, and stepfamilies, the purpose of this study was to examine whether the number of mother cohabitation transitions over the first nine years of life were associated with adolescents’ dating behaviors at 15 years.

Method: Data came from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Data were restricted to adolescents whose mothers reported relationship status for the first five waves of data (baseline, ages 1, 3, 5, 9; N = 2,273). The transition variable was a sum of the number of cohabitation changes the mother reported across the five waves(e.g., if the mother was cohabitating with a partner at baseline and at age 1, but not at ages 3-9, the number of transitions would equal 1). Outcomes included whether adolescents had ever dated someone (0=no, 1=yes); number of persons dated (starting at 0, capped at 6+); and whether adolescents ever had sex with someone (0=no, 1=yes). Among adolescents in a relationship (n = 540), we examined the relationship quality with their current partner (1=poor to 5=excellent). Multilevel analyses were run in Mplus. For dichotomous outcomes, logistic regression was used; for ordinal outcomes, ordinal logistic regression was used; for continuous outcomes, regression with maximum likelihood estimation with robust standard errors was used. All analyses controlled for adolescent sex, adolescent externalizing behavior, adolescent exposure to domestic violence, household income, parent education, parent age, and parent depression.

Results: Increases in number of mother cohabitation transitions was associated with an increase in the odds of adolescents ever dating someone (LO = 0.18, OR = 1.20, p < .01), the number of persons dated (LO = 0.19, OR = 1.21, p < .001), and ever having sex with someone (LO = 0.16, OR = 1.17, p < .05). For adolescents in a current relationship, number of transitions was not associated with relationship quality (B = -.03, p = .295).

Conclusions and Implications: Understanding that mother cohabitation transitions are associated with adolescent dating behaviors is valuable information for practitioners, families, and communities. These findings underscore the importance of continued research with regard to how relationship attitudes and behaviors are shaped through transitions. Dating and sexual health programs typically do not consider the complexity of youth’s prior relationship experiences, including how parental break-ups and new partnerships have been modeled. Communities with high levels of family composition turnover may consider the value of promoting healthy dating and sexual relationships among their adolescent populations, including emphasis on open communication within families.