Post-birth marriage and children's behavior in fragile families

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The objective of this study was to learn how post-birth marriage among fragile families was related to child behavior problems by examining the (1) characteristics that predict post-birth marriage, (2) the relationship of various dimensions of post-birth marriage (i.e., occurrence, timing, identity of mother's partner, relationship trajectory, and family instability) to child behavior problems, and (3) parental stress and parenting behaviors as mediators. Data from the first four waves of the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCWS) were examined using multivariate analyses of a sample of mothers who were unmarried at the time of the focal child's birth (N = 2,283). This longitudinal study revealed that the occurrence and the timing of a post-birth marriage in the first five years following the child's birth were not related to aggressive or internalizing behaviors. However, marriage to the child's biological father predicted lower aggressive behavior as well as lower parental stress. Furthermore, there were two relationship trajectories that predicted higher aggressive behaviors, namely one including the dissolution of the parent's romantic relationship followed by the mother's re-partnering, and the other including multiple transitions ending with the biological parents back together in a romantic relationship. Family instability (i.e., 3-6 transitions) was associated with higher aggressive behaviors. None of the post-birth marriage components predicted internalizing behavior. Analyses of parenting variables showed that parental stress and spanking predicted higher aggressive behaviors, but maternal involvement did not. Mediation tests revealed that parental stress mediated the relationship between marriage to the child's father and aggressive behaviors. Furthermore, a reduction in parental stress was linked to a decreased likelihood that the mother utilized spanking as a parenting technique. Results support previous research linking family instability, parental stress, and spanking to aggressive behaviors. These findings were unable to find support for the assumption that any marriage is universally beneficial for all families, but found evidence that a marriage to the child's father may produce positive outcomes. This study contributes to a growing body of literature regarding fragile families and supports further study of the multiple dimensions of parents' romantic relationships and their impact on child well-being.