By Belinda Luscombe
September 10, 2014

Children of wealthy families that come apart have a bigger spike in behavior problems than children of poor families who experience the same thing. But wealthier children benefit more from being incorporated into stepfamilies than poorer children do. So says a new study in the latest issue of Child Development, which also noted the kids’ age when parents separate plays a key role, with the most vulnerable stage being from 3 to 5 years old.

The study was conducted by researchers at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., and the University of Chicago, using a national sample of nearly 4,000 children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Researchers divided the kids into three groups by income and studied the effect of a change in family structure on each group.

“Our findings suggest that family changes affect children’s behavior in higher-income families more than children’s behavior in lower-income families — for better and for worse,” says Rebecca Ryan, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, the study’s lead author.

Why do children of high-income parents act out more after separation than children from low-income parents? Ryan isn’t sure. “To be honest, our study finds most conclusively that they do act up more, but says less about why that might be.”

But she has some guesses. The first is that dads, who are usually the breadwinners, often move out of the home so there’s a big dip in household income. Or it could be that the kids have to move to a new neighborhood/school/friend group and the instability takes a toll. Or maybe less-wealthy families don’t take it so hard. “Parental separation is more common among lower-income families,” says Ryan. “Parents and children may perceive family changes as more normative, more predictable, and, thus, less stressful.”

However Ryan says, it’s not just about the money. “Changes in income itself did not seem to explain the increase in behavior problems, which surprised us.” Moreover the changes in behavior were only noticeable if the kids were younger than 5 years old. “We found no effect of parental separation on children ages 6 to 12,” says Ryan.

Another surprise was that wealthier kids older than 6, who were blended into stepfamilies had improvements in their behavior. Ryan and her crew first noticed this when she did a prior study back in 2012, but was still surprised to have those findings confirmed. That study also suggested that parental separation affects kids whose parents were actually married more than those who were cohabiting.

Ryan cautions that the differences between kids whose parents were separated and those who were together was not as strong as the differences among low-, middle- and higher-income families. “These results suggest that many factors other than family structure influence children’s behavior, particularly for children in low-income families. For them, the quality of the home environment, regardless of family structure, mattered most to social and emotional well-being.”

She even wades a little into the debate on whether fixing marriage will help fix poverty or whether you need to fix the poverty to have a shot at saving marriage. She’s on the side of the latter. Programs designed to save marriage, she says, will not be as effective as programs that “enhance the quality of the socio-emotional or educational environments in the home.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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