The “nuclear family” is rapidly disappearing in the United States. It can be defined as having a mother, (whose primary role is caregiver), a father, (whose primary role is financial stability), and children. Though there are many factors outside the control of parents and children, this is the ideal offered in Scripture from the beginning.
Genesis 2:24 This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.
In the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks stated that “The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake”. His byline exclaimed, “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half-century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.” Black Lives Matter also weighed in more than a year later by stating their intention to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”
Karl Marx said as much In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, in which he called for the abolition of the family.
It would be hard to ignore both the declining trends and resulting impact the loss of the nuclear family is having on our children.
Four Broad Indicators on the Decline of the Nuclear Family
1. Changing Definition of Family
In 1968, 85% of children lived in a household with two parents (regardless of marital status). By 2020 that number had dropped to 70% according to the Current Population Survey. Children living with only their mothers increased from 11% in 1968 to 21% in 2020. In the same time frame, children living with only their father increased from 1% to 4.5%. Finally, children living with no biological parents (with grandparents or other relatives) also increased from 3% to 4% over the same timeframe.
Cohabitation has also been on a steep rise in America. According to a Pew Research study, while the number of adults who are currently married has remained relatively stable from 1995 (58%) to 2019 (53%), the number of adults who are currently living with an unmarried partner has risen from 3% to 7% over the same period. While these percentages are small, the number of adults between 18-44 who have ever lived with an unmarried partner (59%) surpasses the number who have ever been married (50%) in the same age group.
2. Divorce Is Common
According to a Divorce.com study in 2023, the U.S. has the sixth highest divorce rate in the world with between 40% to 50% of married couples filing for a divorce. This is true even though the rate has been dropping since 2009. The 2020 national divorce rate was 2.3 per 1000 people, a significant drop from 3.6 in 2011. Women (69%) vs. men (31%) typically initiate divorce proceedings. Finally, the average length of marriage in America is currently 8.2 years. When considering the impact on children, these are alarming figures.
In 1960 73% of children lived in a household with two parents in their first marriage. However, by 2014 that percentage had dropped to 46%. According to Pew Research, in 2019, 23% of children were living in single-parent households. To put that in perspective, the average percentage of single-parent households in the world is 7%. Even in Canada, single-parent households were only 15% in 2019.
3. Child Custody
A study conducted in 2022, published in Demographic Research found that shared physical custody by divorced parents (who lived separately) more than doubled between 1985 and 2014, from 13% to 34%. According to another study from Pew Research, 16% of children currently live in blended families (kids from multiple marriages), a number that has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years.
4. Mental Health of our Children
The CDC just released a report covering the period from 2011 to 2021 on the mental health of youth in America. This is the first post-COVID study on youth risk behavior. Their extensive findings were summarized by stating,
- “As we have seen in our previous reports, several areas of adolescent health and well-being are continuing to improve overall, including risky sexual behavior… and substance use… We also saw a decrease in the proportion of youth who were bullied at school.”
- “Unfortunately, almost all other indicators of health and well-being in this report including protective sexual behaviors (i.e., condom use, sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing, and HIV testing), experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors worsened significantly.”
- “Across almost all measures of substance use, experiences of violence, mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, female students are faring more poorly than male students. These differences, and the rates at which female students are reporting such negative experiences, are stark.”
JAMA Pediatrics published an exhaustive longitudinal study on the mental health of children, ages 3-17 in the US. Their findings include:
- Pre-pandemic anxiety and depression increased by 24% and 27% respectively from 2016-2019. In 2020, 9.2% and 4% of kids were diagnosed as having anxiety and depression respectively.
- Behavior and conduct problems in kids have increased by 21% between 2019 and 2020.
- Eight percent of kids lived with someone with a mental health illness in 2020, representing almost a 6% increase from 2016.
The CDC also published a report in 2022 based on child mental health data between 2013 and 2019. Those key findings are highlighted below.
- Diagnosis of ADHD and Anxiety were 98% and 9.4% respectively.
- Depression and suicide experienced among older children and teens were 21% of those surveyed.
- Approximately 7 in 100k children between the ages of 10-19 died by suicide between 2018 and 2019.
A peer-reviewed article published in April of 2022 presented findings on depression based on National Alliance on Mental Illness statistics.
- 3.1 million between 12-17 in the US experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
- 20% of adolescent girls and 6.8% of boys have experienced a major depressive episode.
- 71% of adolescents who did experience a severe depressive episode in the past year experienced severe impairment.
- 60% of children and adolescents with depression do not get any type of treatment.
- Suicide is the second highest cause of death among those aged 10-34.
- Nearly 50% of those diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder.
Of particular concern are children of LGBTQ Families
- According to the Family Equality Council, in 2017 there were more than 547k same-sex couples in America raising approximately 200k children.
- The Trevor Project conducted a national survey on 34k LGBTQ youth, ages 13-24, with 45% of those responding being LGBTQ of color and 48% being transgender or nonbinary. The results of their polling are summarized below.
- “45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.”
- “14% of LGBTQ youth attempted suicide in the past year.”
- “73% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety.”
- “36% of LGBTQ youth reported that they have been physically threatened or harmed due to either their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
- “17% of LGBTQ youth reported being threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy.”
- “60% of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it.”
A Biblical Christian Perspective
There is much that can be drawn from the statistics offered above. If one is willing to make a correlation with data on the increase in crime, delinquency, deteriorating educational standards of achievement, and moral decay, the trajectory is not a positive one for families in general and youth specifically. The seams of our culture become more and more strained as the nuclear family comes increasingly under attack.
We know the forces aligned against God focus on the weak points of our society, and, one of the weakest links is the strength of the family unit. If that can be broken, it impacts the generations that follow.
Even though our citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20), we are still held accountable as parents and caretakers for future generations. We can still make an impact and stand for Biblical principles of right and wrong for the sake of our families and our children’s families.
Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
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