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Set A Good Example For Your Child When Cohabiting

As teenagers, most of us rolled our eyes when Mom told us to turn off the soap opera because the actors were "living in sin."

They called it "shacking up" in the 1970s. Today, more couples are choosing to live together instead of getting married. But researchers say teenagers are more likely to have behavioral problems if they live with cohabiting couples as opposed to a single parent or the married biological parents.

The Data

The 2000 U. S. Census reveals 19 million children living with one parent, up from 15.9 million in 1990. It's not unusual for many of those single parents to cohabitate with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Greg Acs, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute in Washington, D. C., says the rise in cohabitation has been well documented, but little was known about how children fare in cohabiting families as opposed to traditional families.

He researched the living arrangements of teenagers and published his findings with co-authors Rebecca Clark and Sandi Nelson in the report, "Beyond the Two-Parent Family: How Teenagers Fare in Cohabiting Couples and Blended Families."

"The why is the hardest part," says Acs, who found white and Hispanic teenagers living in cohabiting families fare worse, on average, than those living with single mothers. "There may be important differences based on the amount of time children spend in a given living arrangement, how old they are when they are in that arrangement, the number of times their living arrangements change, their sex and their race/ethnic affiliation."

He speculates there may be no ill effects of living with unmarried parents when a child is an infant, but problems may emerge when he or she reaches school age. "A teenage girl might have a harder time with a stepfather than a teenage boy," he says. "As to why there are race differences in outcomes for teens by living arrangement, I can only speculate. For example, having Mom's boyfriend present may be a bigger disruption for whites than for blacks."

White teenagers living with cohabiters are significantly more likely to exhibit "low school engagement" than those living with a single mother (39.3 compared to 27.9 percent.) Also, white and black teenagers living with cohabiters are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than those living with a single mother.

Fly by Night

Katherine Robredo, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado Springs, Colo., says she finds teenagers are less likely to accept a "functional stepparent" in the home if the boyfriend or girlfriend is not married to the biological parent. Robredo recommends newly single parents avoid living with boyfriends or girlfriends because dating relationships are often rocky and unpredictable. Better to stay with grandparents or an extended family member if finances are tight until matters improve.

"What I find with kids is they don't have any reason to invest in the other person, and often it's the other way around too where the other person does not seem as interested in the child," Robredo say. "They don't see what's in it for them to get to know the person too well because usually if the parents are cohabiting, it's not going to be the first time they've done that or the kids don't have any reason to believe they will have to deal with that person too much."

Who Is the Boss?

Teenagers, especially male teenagers, need positive male role models and authority figures. Single mothers can rely on a brother or grandfather. They can encourage their sons to spend time with (trustworthy) male mentors through sports or clubs.

"If the couple lives together, the teenager does not know what the person's role is," Robredo says. "Is their role that they are Mom's boyfriend or Dad's girlfriend? If there are other parents in the picture, there is even less authority."

Alison Pratt, a psychologist and stepmother to one teenager, says she decided to counsel blended families after becoming a part of one when she married 11 years ago. Pratt, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., says the cornerstone of all relationships is respect. "You say (to the teen) you don't have to love this person, but you do have to respect this person," Pratt says.

She says the parent and functional stepparent need to set the rules for the home. Teenagers need and respect boundaries.

"When the kid says, 'At Mom or Dad's house, we don't do things that way. I don't have to clean my room,' you say, 'OK, in that house that's fine but in this house we do things this way,'" Pratt says. "Kids are good at adapting. They can understand there are one set of rules at Mom's house and another set of rules at Dad's house."

We Are Family, Sort Of

Robredo says teenagers need to feel like they belong and that they are important. Teenagers are going to sense tension, and couples in blended families are going to have their share of it.

"The latest research on cohabiting is that cohabiting couples have a far higher divorce rate than couples who don't," Robredo says. "I think when you are looking at a second marriage, you are looking at a higher divorce rate anyway so it seems you are increasing your chances to get divorced."

Pratt says, as a stepmother, she learned to redefine the word family and accept the former spouse as part of it. "With a stepfamily you always consider the other parent," she says. "When you are married and you want to have a bond with your spouse, you don't want to have to think of 'exes.' You can't do that when children are involved. You can't completely put the past behind you because the 'ex' is an important part of the child's life."

She says teenagers will notice the effort the adults in the family are making when everyone graciously comes together for the teenagers' important ceremonies such as graduations and religious confirmations.

Dating Scene

Single parents must use discretion and common sense when dating. Robredo says teenagers don't need to meet every man or woman their parent dates – just the serious contenders. Teenagers, although they might not show it, can become attached to a parent figure in the home.

"I have one family I am thinking of where the mom just met this guy and got all infatuated," Robredo says. "Within four weeks of meeting each other, she had the boyfriend go along in a hotel room to Disney World. The kids probably don't want to go on a family trip to Disney World with this guy Mom just met. They sure don't want to be in the same hotel room. I see parents often don't consider their kids. They consider themselves."

Finally, her advice is to wait at least six months before introducing a partner. Ultimately, delaying gratification will not only help a single parent to develop character, but will set a good example. Teenagers are beginning to develop their own significant romantic relationships for the first time. Teens benefit when they observe a parent keeping his or her head out of the clouds and feet planted in reality while navigating relationships and juggling family with new romances.

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