Max Rady College of Medicine

Concept: Family Structure History

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Concept Description

Last Updated: 2024-03-12


    concept/Social Determinants of Health-SDOH-Digital Library-Image.jpg Family Structure History can be defined as the number, type and timing of changes to Family Structure. It accounts for: the changes in the marital relationship, whether the change involves death, divorce or remarriage, and the age of the child when the first change occurred. Marital history of parents prior to the birth of child is also available. Currently, family structure histories have been derived only for children in the 1984 birth cohort who are born or adopted at birth into two-parent, married households.

    The study of Family Structure Histories implies a "guided life course" approach to the study of family dynamics and suggests that the actions of parents and familial situations will affect the trajectory of the life course of their children.


    Children whose Family Structure History is less stable are less likely to graduate from high school compared to children who experience no changes in family structure during childhood.

    The guided life course approach posits that the life trajectory of one person affects the trajectories of all those they are connected to and vice versa. This suggests great changes in life course trajectories in parents, such as the divergence or end of said paths, would have a significant effect on the life courses of their children. Early childhood health can be measured by a broad range of factors (including physical growth, behavioral and cognitive development and school performance) which can all be affected by a child's life course. Given the effects of parental trajectories, and the changes thereof, on children, it becomes significant to track both the trajectories and changes as related concepts to fully understand the state of well being of a child.


    The Manitoba Health Insurance Registry, housed at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, is an administrative, population based data-set that contains the health care information for all Manitobans since 1970. The registry includes dates of birth and death, sex, household composition and place of residence. This allows researchers to derive longitudinal histories for each resident (assigned an encrypted identifying number to insure privacy). Time-sensitive elements such as changes in household composition are updated using "snapshot" registries provided by the Ministry of Health every six months.

    For children born into a married parent household, five mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories for changes in family structure were derived. These categories are: parental divorce only, parental death only, parental divorce followed by remarriage, parental death followed by remarriage and three or more transitions. Families that did not experience any event that fit in one of the above categories were considered to have not undergone any change in Family Structure. Children with three or more changes in family structure were grouped together because of the small number of children with more than three changes in family composition.

    Marital history prior to the establishment of a family was tracked for both the male and female parents before the birth of their child. The parents were placed into two yes or no categories which are: was there a previous marital relationship that produced children and was there a previous marital relationship that did not produce children. Parents responding "no" to both are considered to have no marital history.

    Age of the child at the time of the first change in family structure is also recorded.

    Control variables modeled are all those that describe the demographic characteristics of a child that are predictive of high school graduation. Sex of the child is a dummy variable coded 1 for male and 0 otherwise. The number of children in the household is a count of all live children born to the mother. Birth order is a discrete variable that reflects the order of birth with higher values representing later births. Mother's age at birth of first child is a continuous variable representing her age at the birth of her first child.

    In data analysis, all continuous variables were centered on their respective means. Because the variable for age of the child at time of first change in family structure applies only to children who experience a change in family structure, we used an internal moderator variable. As such, coefficients that represent changes in family structure stand for differences in the odds of high school graduation between children who experience a change in family structure relative to children who experience no change, and the coefficient for age of child at time of first change represents the conditional effect of timing for those children who experience any change. Further description of this method can be found in Ross and Mirowsky, 1992.

    Please see the MCHP Documentation Uncovering Family Relationships in Administrative Data in the Links section below for a brief description of:
    • Stable Families
    • Family Head Change
    • Split Families
    • Blended Families


    Because Manitoba Health relies on respondent notification of a change in marital status, there is some error in our measure of marital change (described in Strohschein et al., 2009 ).

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  • Roos LL, Brownell M, Lix L, Roos NP, Walld R, MacWilliam L. From health research to social research: Privacy, methods, approaches. Soc Sci Med 2008;66(1):117-129. [Abstract] (View)
  • Strohschein L, Roos N, Brownell M. Family structure histories and high school completion: Evidence from a population-based registry. Canadian Journal of Sociology 2009;34(1):83-103. [Abstract] (View)


  • Divorce
  • family
  • family structure
  • marital status

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Manitoba Centre for Health Policy
Community Health Sciences, Max Rady College of Medicine,
Rady Faculty of Health Sciences,
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