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 

Parents Split, Junior Flunks

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

For all of their effusive pro-child rhetoric, progressives remain astonishingly blind to the real consequences for children of their marriage-subverting principles. But those consequences come into sobering focus in a new Spanish study concluding that children who experience a parental separation are disturbingly likely to fail in school.  

In sketching out the context for their investigation into the association between parental separation and academic failure, the researchers cite collective statistics for the 28 countries that constitute the European Union. Such statistics reveal that 65% of the EU’s adults live in couples, with about half of all couple relationships (marriages and consensual unions) ending in separation; the annual total number of EU separations and divorces involving children comes in at nearly one million.  

Affiliated with three Spanish universities (the University of A Coruña, the University of Vigo, and the University of Santiago de Compostela), the authors of the new study well understand that these parental divorces and separations mean trouble for the children affected.  Previous studies, cited by these authors, indicate that “parental separation is linked to negative effects on children in terms of psychological adjustment, academic performance, behavioral disorders, self-concept, and social adjustment.” Not only do the researchers adduce evidence from these studies that children whose parents separate prove distinctively likely to develop disruptive and aggressive behaviors, emotional problems, and poor family self-concepts, but they also point to research finding that such children all too often “convert psychological problems into physical symptoms, increasing the probability of developing gastrointestinal, genitourinary, dermatological, and neurological disorders.”

Even more disheartening are the conclusions that the authors of this study glean from earlier investigations of juvenile delinquency suggesting that the psychological harm associated with parental separation develops as “damaged areas” of the psyche that are “interrelated and constitute a cluster of damages, making them highly resistant to intervention, and fostering persistent recidivism in maladjustment.”

Particularly interested in the “firmly established . . . association between parental separation and school failure,” the researchers wonder why students—whose intrinsic academic aptitude should not be affected by parental separation—so often do poorly in school when their parents separate. Accordingly, they seek evidence that parental separation deleteriously affects students’ attitudes toward learning, the academic settings in which it occurs, and the teachers who oversee it. To find such evidence, they scour data collected from 196 children ages 8 to 15+ living in the area of  Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain.

The data clearly reveal “significant effects of parental separation in school adjustment,” effects that the researchers conclude reflect the role of parental separation in incubating aversion to school, aversion to learning, and aversion to teachers, and in eroding students’ personal discipline. The researchers characterize the negative effects of parental separation on students’ academic attitudes as “small” among students ages 8 to 11, “moderate” among students 12 to 24, and “large” among students 15 and older.

Even among the younger students (ages 8 to 11), among whom they see parental separation resulting in only “small” negative effects on academic attitudes, the researchers document statistically significant elevation of “external school maladjustment,” of “aversion to the institution [i.e., the school],” and of “aversion to learning” (p < 0.001 for first and third outcomes; p < 0.01 for second outcome).

Among the students ages 12 to 14, the researchers report that parental separation predicts “higher levels of maladjustment . . . in aversion to instruction, hypo-commitment [i.e., lack of commitment], hypo-motivation [i.e., lack of motivation], and aversion to teachers” (p < 0.001 for all three outcomes). 

And among students ages 15 and up, the researchers’ results linked parental separation to “significantly higher maladjustment manifested by aversion to instruction, hypo-commitment, hypo-motivation, school dissatisfaction, aversion to teachers, and indiscipline [i.e., disruptive behavior]” (p < 0.001 for first four outcomes; p < 0.01 for last two outcomes).  

In interpreting their study, the researchers plausibly regard the pattern in their findings as “equivalent, compatible, and complementary to the hypothesis of an escalating natural trajectory toward antisocial behavior (e.g., disruptive, violent, delinquent).” The researchers explain that this trajectory means that “the effects on maladjustment follow the natural tendency of increasing with the child’s development, i.e., the older the child the greater the negative effects.” The researchers remind their readers that “the interrelationship between school (mal)adjustment and antisocial behaviors is such that school adjustment (e.g., high academic achievement, positive attitude to school) serves as a robust protective factor against violence, whereas school maladjustment is one of the central . . . antisocial risk factors.” It is therefore not puzzling to the researchers that “school maladjustment is closely linked to a general and persistent life-long maladjustment trajectory.”

Stressing that students of parents who have separated fail in school because they develop unhealthy academic attitudes, the researchers conclude by arguing that therapeutic “interventions should be targeted to repair [these attitudes].” This call for reparative intervention may strike readers as dubious given the researchers’ own earlier acknowledgement of studies describing the psychological harm associated with parental separation as “highly resistant to intervention.”

A wiser approach inheres in the researchers’ hope that their findings will guide colleagues in “the design and implementation of prevention and intervention programs for children from separated parents” (emphasis added). Since intervention appears fruitless in many cases, prevention offers better prospects. But real prevention of the problem this study highlights means reinforcing parental marriages, so preventing students from ever seeing their parents separate and experiencing the psychological distress that often dashes their academic prospects. 

(Tania Corrás et al., “What and How Much Do Children Lose in Academic Settings Owing to Parental Separation?” Frontiers in Psychology 8 [2017]: 1,545, Web.)