• Linda Nguyen

Unstable Family Dynamics and Children's Academic Performance


The environment at home can play a huge role in a child’s performance at school. Parents are often the first point of socialization for children and act as their first teachers. Therefore, learning starts in the home, where children develop attitudes, beliefs and values from their parents. Children learn directly and indirectly from observing what goes on in the home. Even as they enter school, it is important that the home must continue to be conducive to learning.


Children within a safe, stable, and supportive family environment academically perform well in school. In addition to being nurturing, accepting and encouraging, instilling positive expectations, attitudes, and values towards education as a parent is beneficial to children’s academic success. For instance, getting involved in your child’s school activities can be helpful. Children with involved parents perform better and have more positive attitudes and behaviours at school.


In cases where there is an unstable home environment, social, emotional and academic challenges can emerge. For example, parental conflict and/or changes in family dynamics can create a high level of stress and tension. Many children do not have the tools to cope or the capacity to process their thoughts and emotions in these situations.

Parental Conflict:

The quality of the relationship between parents can strongly influence a child’s emotional, behaviour, and academic performance. This effect holds regardless of if the parents live together or are separated and whether they are biologically related to the child, such as step-parent(s) or foster parent(s).


Parental instability can create a stressful and tense home environment that increases frustration and lack of motivation. A high level of frequent, intense and unresolved conflicts between parents negatively impacts a child’s academic performance. Specifically, these children tend to score lower in math, languages, and verbal ability testing.

What type of parental conflicts are there?

  • Aggression

  • Non-verbal conflict

  • “Silent treatment.”

  • Lack of respect

  • Controlling behaviour

  • Unresolved conflicts

  • Domestic abuse

What are the effects of parental conflicts on a child or teen?

  • Poorer academic performance

  • Negative peer relationships

  • Psychological symptoms: aggression, anxiety, depression, withdrawal

  • Suicidal ideation and attempts

  • Impulsive and addictive behaviours

Family Dynamic Changes

Are you concerned about how your divorce or separation may impact your child?

A child’s performance in school can be largely affected by major changes in the family dynamics, such as divorces and/or new parental partners. Whether they remain single or not, children who have divorced parents are more likely to have classroom conduct issues, specifically in task persistence and eagerness to learn.


Outside of school, children of divorced parents tend to show more symptoms of sad, worried and withdrawn behaviour. They experience more problematic behaviour at home, where they are more likely to be unhappy and bother by fear and worries. Furthermore, they exhibit more distractibility, hyperactive and impulsive behaviour.


The quality of the parental relationship and home environment outweighs the family structure. While children of divorced parents are more likely to have academic issues, this is not always the case. It can be equally as damaging for children whose parents remain married but have an unstable or high-conflict relationship with one another. Furthermore, irrespective of their home environment or family structures, children are still able to work hard and perform well, given the proper support and resources.


In cases where a child is under the care of a single parent, there is usually a significant reduction in income and financial resources. A single-income household can create increased stress for the parent as they worry about providing resources and opportunities for their child.

These resources and opportunities include:

  • Proper nutrition

  • Medical care

  • School fees

  • Textbooks

  • Computers

  • Tutors

  • Field trips

  • Extracurricular activities

Due to financial constraints, a parent may have to spend more time away from their children to earn enough money to support their family.


Children whose parents introduce a new partner experience two family dynamic transitions; divorce and a new relationship. As a result, children from a blended family can struggle more than those in single-parent families. This is observed in school conduct, school disciplinary action and emotional symptoms and problematic behaviours. Generally, blended families do not experience a significant decline in financial resources. Children can also benefit from having a new parental figure who can provide love and support.


However, these two benefits do not necessarily remedy the effects of a potentially stressful transition. Children can face challenges in learning new patterns of interaction with their biological parents, their parents' new partners and any additional step-siblings or half-siblings. In addition, they also may have to undergo the stress of custodial arrangements, going between parents' households, moving homes and switching schools.


The key point to consider is that the relationship between family dynamics and school performance is complex. Grades that students achieve in school are only one part of the picture. Children who experience any kind of change in family dynamic can experience several emotional and psychological symptoms that may affect their future accomplishments.


What can parents do?

Open communication. Talk to your child about what is going on. Depending on their age, explain things in a way they can understand. You do not need to go into details, but try not to hide what is going on. Parents often try to protect their kids from family issues, but doing so can cause more harm than good. Children and teens notice something wrong, and not communicating with them will cause confusion, frustration and resentment.


Play an active role in your child’s education. This can include helping your child with their homework or seeking a tutor to support them. Also, being present at parent-teacher conferences and attending school events. Spend time teaching your child skills, especially those not taught in school, such as playing with others, resolving disagreements, how to be kind, and caring for themselves.


Support them. Regardless of circumstances, children do best when they feel supported by their parents. Spend quality time, and give them your undivided attention. Talk to them about what is troubling them and encourage them to express their feelings. Remind them that it is not their responsibility or burden to ‘fix’ their family situation.


Seek counselling for yourself (and your partner)

If you are experiencing conflict in your relationship with your partner, counselling can be beneficial. Therapy can help you gain insight, resolve conflict and improve relationship satisfaction. Therapy can also help parents who are undergoing divorce to navigate guilt, fear, anxiety, depression, and grief.


Seeking counselling for your child. In cases where there is a parental conflict or a change in the family dynamic, your child can experience a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, confusion and guilt. Counselling is a great way to help your child process their thoughts and express their emotions. They are also able to learn skills and tools to better cope with the situation.



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