Single vs two-parent families: A Western Cape study of well-being

04 July 2017 | Dr Eugene Lee Davids

Several theories exist within the field of psychology. These theories act as lenses to make sense of the world we live in and are important in understanding our interactions within the world as human beings. In South Africa, a country rich in diversity, a theoretical framework that I find very useful in making sense of the world we live in and understanding how it impacts on us as individuals – either positively or negatively – is Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory. The theory believes that as individuals we live in a world made up of many systems that operate from the familial environment all the way to governmental structures and socio-political attitudes. All of these systems play an important role in influencing our psychological well-being.

Psychological well-being has been defined as feeling good (or happy) and being able to function optimally as an individual and in our interactions with those around us. In essence it is about us being happy and healthy; and living life to our fullest potential as human beings. When considering psychological well-being, using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory, I have always been interested in the question of how parenting within the familial home environment plays a role in children and adolescents’ psychological well-being.

From the perspective of this theory, it would provide an understanding that the familial home environment where parenting takes place would influence or shape the child’s psychological well-being. However, the role of parenting and family structure – whether being a single or married parent – also plays a role. There has often been the understanding that children and adolescents raised in married or two-parent families would fare better than those from single parent families. This, however, is not always the case. If we had to consider a two-parent family where conflict (such as arguments and scolding) takes place between parental figures it would create inter-parental conflict (conflict between parents) and this would shape and influence parenting and have an effect on the child. So, the thought of children in two-parent families doing or feeling better than those in single parent families is not always the case.

A study in the Western Cape, South Africa, looked at goals and aspirations among adolescents from single and two-parent families and found that there was a slight, yet significant difference in the goals and aspirations between adolescents from single and two-parent families. Adolescents from single parent families aspired more to intrinsic goals (these included goals such as good relationships, personal growth and a sense of community) which is associated with being more psychologically well according to other research, while the opposite was found for adolescents from two-parent families.

To understand whether aspiring to intrinsic goals do in fact play a role in psychological well-being among adolescents in the Western Cape, the authors of the previous study conducted another study to understand if this relationship between intrinsic goals does in fact play a role in psychological well-being among adolescents. The follow-up study found that intrinsic goals did in fact play a role in psychological well-being among adolescents (with no differences found between boys and girls, however differences across family structure were not examined).

What might this mean for us? Reflecting on Bronfenbrenner’s theory, as parents, it makes us become aware of the important role that we play in the development and well-being of children and adolescents. From a parenting perspective, parenting that involves displays of warmth and responsiveness and allows for autonomy is seen has having more favourable outcomes for children and adolescents when happening within the context of limit-setting.

Fostering autonomy, relatedness and competence is believed to promote psychological well-being. Psychological well-being, as previously suggested, is associated with intrinsic goals and aspirations.

A typical example of how parenting can foster autonomy, relatedness and competence within the familial home environment could be when your son/daughter needs to prepare for a ‘show-and-tell’ day at school. Your child needs to find an object and present the object as well as facts about it to his/her class. When you allow your child to identify an object for the ‘show-and-tell’ activity at school on his/her own, you are promoting autonomous behaviour. By showing interest in the activity and assisting where help might be needed, you are fostering the parent-child interaction, bringing about warmth and a sense of belonging/relatedness. In the interaction with your child you might find that he/she is performing well at the activity in (i) identifying an object for the ‘show-and-tell’ as well as (ii) being able to gather important facts about the object selected. By praising the mastery of these tasks you bring about a sense of competence. From the perspective of a theory of human motivation, satisfying autonomy, relatedness and competence promotes psychological well-being – and in the studies presented from the Western Cape it has also been associated with intrinsic goals and aspirations.
Dr Eugene Lee Davids is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Adolescent Health Research Unit in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cape Town. He is also a member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), a Mandela Rhodes Scholar and a Mail&Guardian Top 200 Young South African.

First published on Mail&Guardian.

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