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—Really Hurting Children

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Does parental divorce actually hurt children? The question might seem absurd to those aware of the mountain of evidence showing that children of divorce are worse off than children in intact families. But some sociologists see the linkage between parental divorce and unfavorable outcomes for children as only a statistical illusion. They interpret that linkage as merely an indication of what sociologists call “selection.” That is, something other than parental divorce itself—say, psychological malaise in the parents—causes both parental divorce and poor outcomes for children. In other words, both parental divorce and child distress are just two types of bitter fruit hanging on the same bad tree. In this view, then, parental divorce does not cause children’s distress; it merely accompanies it. 

But a study recently completed at Pennsylvania State University makes this line of thinking much harder to maintain. Using a sophisticated statistical methodology, the authors of the new study adduce compelling evidence that parental divorce in and of itself does cause a variety of negative outcomes for children.  

The authors of this new study launch their inquiry in the context of “a large number of studies from multiple disciplines [that] have explored the effects of parental separation and divorce on children . . . consistently demonstrat[ing] that children with divorced parents, compared with children with two continuously married parents, score lower (on average) on a variety of measures of achievement, adjustment, and well-being.” But the Penn State scholars acknowledge “the substantial difficulties of drawing causal conclusions about divorce” since “the factors that lead parents to end their marriages may also affect children negatively, resulting in spurious associations between divorce and child outcomes.”

The Penn State researchers are confident, however, that an inquiry based on what statisticians call “fixed-effects models” will resolve the question of causality because such models take into account “all time-invariant selection factors, including those that are difficult or impossible to observe.” 

To apply their sophisticated statistical methodology, the researchers pool data collected from a nationally representative set of 11,003 children who were tracked from kindergarten through their senior year of high school. Their statistical parsing of these data yields an unequivocal pattern: “divorce was associated with consistent declines in children’s achievement and adjustment. Moreover, these results held for adolescents . . . as well as younger children.” 

More specifically, the statistical models reveal troubling “declines in reading scores, mathematics scores, positive approach to learning, interpersonal skills, and self-control.” Perhaps even more troubling are the “increases in internalizing problems and externalizing problems” linked to parental divorce.

Lest any miss the point, the researchers stress that their statistical methodology has adduced “evidence for a causal effect of divorce on children” that must be regarded as “reasonably strong.” The effect, in fact, is as strong as investigators are ever likely to find “in the absence of true experiments,” which no ethical person could countenance on such an issue.

To be sure, the Penn State scholars characterize most of the negative child outcomes in view as “modest in magnitude.” But they acknowledge that “internalizing problems” (problems such as anxiety and depression) do loom larger, making them a disturbing “exception” to their moderately reassuring characterization of the size of the problems traceable to parental divorce. 

The researchers discern “substantial degree of variability in children’s outcomes following parental divorce.” It is hardly surprising that the results suggest that “parents with many social and economic resources are better able than other parents to buffer their children from the negative effects of family disruption.” It is even less surprising that parental divorce appears “most harmful” when parents are “most disadvantaged.”

The publication of this new study should dispel the arguments of those eager to deny that parental divorce actually harms children. However, it may not be good news that the children of the poor pay a significantly higher price than do the children of the rich when their parents split. For in that disparity we may see a partial explanation of the insouciance of the cultural elite when it comes to family issues that affect them far less than they do the nation’s working class.

(Paul R. Amato and Christopher J. Anthony, “Estimating the Effects of Parental Divorce and Death with Fixed-Effects Models,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76.4 [2014]: 370-86.)