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.