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 

Chronicling the Impact of Parental Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

As the evidence of the negative impact of parental divorce is overwhelming, researchers have moved from documenting the fact to exploring how and why marital breakup affects children more than adults. In an attempt to better understand the impact of divorce, Hyun Sik Kim of the University of Wisconsin examines the effects of three distinct stages of divorce on the cognitive and non-cognitive development of children. Among those stages—pre-, in-, and post-divorce time periods—the sociologist found that the last two stages exerted the most significant and negative effects on several, but not all, measures of child development.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–
Kindergarten Class 1998 to 1999, Kim confined his analysis to children who suffered the divorce of their biological parents between first and third grade, as compared to their peers in intact families. Employing three statistical models for each outcome, he measured the aptitude of these children in math and reading as measured by the study’s Item Response Test scale, as well as three measures of social and emotional development: interpersonal skills, externalizing behavior problems, and internalizing behavior problems.

While his models indicate weak and negative effects on reading scores during the in-divorce and post-divorce periods, the effects on math scores were more substantial. The combined effects of math scores during the in- and post-divorce stages were negative and statistically significant, as the children of divorce scored, on average, 5.4 points lower than the estimated scores for these children had their parents remained married.

Results were similar when the Wisconsin sociologist turned to measures of children’s non-cognitive development. During the in-divorce stage, children were more likely to exhibit declines in interpersonal skills as they “grappled with their new family contexts.” Those adverse consequences remained salient even after children exited the divorce period. Moreover, while the study did not uncover any significant effects of parental divorce on externalizing behavior problems, the effects on internalizing behaviors were pronounced during the in-divorce stage. As Kim summarizes: “Compared with their counterparts in intact families, children of divorce were more likely to struggle with ‘anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness’ while their parents were in the divorce stage.” Moreover, these effects persisted in the post-divorce stage.

Kim acknowledges that his findings may not be conclusive, in part because his analysis only followed children two years after experiencing their parents’ divorce and because many effects of parental divorce do not surface until adulthood. But he nonetheless maintains that his findings contradict any notion that most children recover from family breakup as time passes or that parental divorce can be good for children. If he can persuade more American parents to also reject such self-serving platitudes, that would be an accomplishment.

(Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review 76.3 [June 2011]: 487–511.)