The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Parental Divorce—Still Hurting Children

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When divorce becomes more common, and so loses some of its social stigma, does it still hurt the children it affects?  That is the question that researchers at the University of Oslo have in view in a recently published study. Their findings indicate that, in general, the answer is “yes.” As the Norwegian scholars embark on their study of the mental-health consequences of parental divorce, they do so conscious of earlier studies that have “shown increased mental health problems in adolescents after parental divorce all over the Western world.” But they wonder if that pattern still holds in a world in which divorce has become “more and more common.”

To clarify the issue, the researchers pore over data collected in two waves—from 2,422 adolescents aged 15/16 in 2001/2002 and from 1,861 of the same young people in 2003/2004. Among the children who experienced parental divorce before 15/16 years of age, the researchers find clear evidence of psychological malaise. In the simplest statistical analysis, “early parental divorce was associated with internalized and externalized mental health problems at age 15/16 years.”  (Internalized mental-health problems are problems such as depression and anxiety; externalized mental-health problems are problems such as aggression and misbehavior.)

The results for early parental divorce are not dramatically different when researchers re-assess the data with a more sophisticated statistical model that accounted for differences in ethnicity, family financial status, and other background variables. To be sure, in this multivariable model, the association between early parental divorce and externalized mental-health problems falls below the threshold for statistical significance. However, even in this multivariable model, the linkage between parental divorce and internalized mental-health problems remains statistically significant.

Curiously, the researchers do not emphasize this sobering finding: even in a society that now routinely accepts divorce, early parental divorce continues to hurt children. Instead, the researchers underscore their findings for late parental divorce—that is, parental divorce occurring after the children affected were 15/16. This focus is peculiar given that “early parental divorce was reported by 22.3% of girls and 21.4% of boys [in their study], late divorce by [only] 6.3% and 5.4%, respectively.”  In other words, the researchers choose to de-emphasize the type of parental divorce experienced by more than three-fourths of the adolescents experiencing this life-changing event.

Perhaps the researchers choose to focus chiefly on the relatively small number of adolescents who experience a late parental divorce because of the pressures of political correctness. After all, their data allow the researchers to give at least partial reassurances about the consequences to children for late parental divorce. Yes, the simplest statistical analysis still shows an elevation of mental-health problems among adolescents experiencing a late parental divorce. However, in the more sophisticated statistical models taking into account background differences, “late parental divorce did not lead to significant increase in mental health problems among adolescents [in this study].”  “It seems,” the researchers write, “that parental divorce in late adolescence does not lead to mental health problems in Norway any more.”

Professional honesty compels the researchers to acknowledge that their de minimis findings for late parental divorce do not harmonize well with some other recently published studies. The researchers even admit that the reason they see no psychological harm associated with late parental divorces may be that their “measures of mental health problems are not good enough.”  They also concede that it is a “possibility” that they see no evidence of psychological distress among adolescents experiencing late parental divorce because their data give them only “a small sample” of teens experiencing such divorce.

In any case, the researchers acknowledge that their findings for late parental divorce may not mean that “parental divorce creates less problems in late adolescence than before but [instead that] these youths . . . have developed adjustment abilities against health effects as divorce has [become] more common.” Even if certain types of psychological distress associated with late parental divorce are diminishing in a divorce-prone society, the researchers realize that “this does not mean that parental divorce is not followed by many problems for children and adolescents, [entailing] both emotional and practical burdens.”  Even in the absence of psychological problems, the Norwegian scholars recognize that “other problems of the offspring [of] divorce may still be overwhelming.”

The authors of this new Norwegian study bend over backward to give assurances to parents who divorce when their children are past 15 or 16. But their conclusions actually remind the residents of Oslo and Orlando that even in a divorce-tolerant society, children pay a high price when parents part.

(Henok Zeratsion et al., “Parental Divorce in Late Adolescence Does Not Seem to Increase Mental Health Problems: A Population Study from Norway,” BMC Public Health 13 [2013]: 413, Web.)