The influence of primary caregiver relationship status history and race/ethnicity on youth mental and physical health: The mediating role of precocious life events

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Lott, Ryan
Major Professor
Kas Wickrama
Steven Garasky
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Human Development and Family Studies

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies focuses on the interactions among individuals, families, and their resources and environments throughout their lifespans. It consists of three majors: Child, Adult, and Family Services (preparing students to work for agencies serving children, youth, adults, and families); Family Finance, Housing, and Policy (preparing students for work as financial counselors, insurance agents, loan-officers, lobbyists, policy experts, etc); and Early Childhood Education (preparing students to teach and work with young children and their families).


The Department of Human Development and Family Studies was formed in 1991 from the merger of the Department of Family Environment and the Department of Child Development.

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  • College of Human Sciences (parent college)
  • Department of Child Development (predecessor)
  • Department of Family Environment (predecessor)

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Researchers have documented that one of the most prominent and significant family demographic changes affecting North America is the increase in single-parents and divorced/separated caregivers raising children. Furthermore, researchers have identified that, although adolescence/early adulthood is considered a time of good health, there is an increasing trend in depressed mood and body mass index, and in adverse cardiovascular functioning. Despite the overwhelming literature on the negative effects of single-parenthood and divorce/separation on mental/physical health, no study to date has investigated the change and stability in relationship status over time on youth mental/physical health outcomes. The purpose of this dissertation is to a) develop relationship status typologies that capture relationship status histories, b) document the effects of these relationship status typologies on mental/physical health outcomes, c) capture proximal processes of stress through precocious life transitions and explore this mediational role, and d) examine the unexplored multiplicative influences of offspring race/ethnicity by relationship status typologies and precocious life events on later mental/physical health outcomes. Specifically, using the life course perspective, family stress/investment models, and cumulative advantage/disadvantage perspectives the current study investigates how growing up in an adverse relationship status (such as single-parenthood, early/late divorced or separated caregivers, and caregivers that transition in and out of marriage-like relationships) influence precocious life events. As such, the current study argues that growing up in these adverse relationship status typologies can be a source of stress that may directly influence youth mental/physical health and premature transitions into adulthood responsibilities (such as early sexual activity and early full-time work).

Data for the current study originated from Waves I (1995), Wave III (2002), and Wave IV (2008) of the Add Health sample (National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health). The final sample included 13,134 youth that had complete data on biomarker outcome variables and self-reported depressed mood in order to address research questions. Results of the study revealed that youth that grow up with caregivers that never marry or frequently transition from relationship to relationship directly influence physical health outcomes. Moreover, the results revealed that, with respect to consistently married caregivers, adverse relationship typologies significantly elevated levels of youth depressed mood. Furthermore, adverse relationship status typologies indirectly influenced mental/physical health outcomes through precocious life events. Also, the current study found that experiences from being African-American exacerbated health outcomes/precocious life events whereas experiences from being Hispanic-American or Asian American protected youth from adverse health outcomes/precocious life events. Finally, the current study found that, in general, experiences from being African-American interacted with relationship status typologies to adversely influence mental/physical health outcomes in youth, where being Hispanic/Asian American reduced the effects from adverse relationship status typologies (with respect to Caucasians) on youth mental/physical health outcomes. Overall, findings from the current study demonstrate that transitional and never-married caregivers are the most vulnerable to adverse health outcomes. Also, relationship status typologies that have any change (such as divorce/separation) are most vulnerable to precocious life transitions where stable relationship status typologies (such as growing up with never-married caregivers) are less vulnerable to precocious life events. In general, findings provide evidence in favor of the mediational role of precocious life events. Findings from the current study are then related back to the literature and theoretical perspectives.

Sat Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2011