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 

Hurting More from Family Breakup

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The dawning of the Age of Aquarius somehow hasn’t worked out quite the way the grand marshals leading the glorious parade originally promised. Indeed, the breakdown in family life that the march helped cause has translated into acute psychological distress for the young people who have experienced that breakdown. A study by public-health officials in Glasgow, Scotland, helps illuminate the linkage between family disintegration and adolescents’ psychological distress.

Comparing data collected by administering a General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) among 15-year-old Scots in 1987 with comparable data by administering the same questionnaire to 15-year-old Scots in 2006, the Glasgow researchers limn an alarming upsurge in psychological problems. This upsurge, the researchers acknowledge, fits within a broader pattern: “Substantial increases have been identified in a number of psychological disorders among young people in most Western countries since the Second World War.”

But what is causing this disturbing rise in psychopathology among young people? The authors acknowledge that the rise in young people’s psychological troubles has occurred against a “broad background of social change,” involving changes in religious, economic, and cultural behaviors and attitudes. Still, the statistical analysis proffered by the Glasgow scholars would seem to implicate changes in the family as a significant cause of this rise in young people’s psychological distress.

In a simple bivariate analysis, the researchers quickly establish that “females not living with both birth parents had higher GHQ scores in 2006” than did peers living with both parents. Indeed, family structure emerges as a significant explanatory variable for the epidemic of psychological illness among both young men and young women in a more sophisticated long-term statistical analysis. In this more sophisticated analysis, the researchers find that, to a significant degree, the sharp rise in psychopathology tracks with a parallel rise in the number of young Scots not living with both birth parents (p<.001 for both males and females).

Though the researchers try to argue that many of the previous studies of parental divorce have returned findings in which “effect sizes are small,” their own conclusions would seem to fit within an overall consensus of researchers reporting that “children from divorced families tend to have poorer psychological adjustment, self-concept and social competence than those of married parents.”

Young people can celebrate the achievements of the bold social revolutionaries who have delivered them from the tyrannies of Ozzie-and-Harriet family stereotypes. Of course, they will have to schedule their celebrations around their appointments with the psychiatrist.

(Helen Sweeting et al., “Can We Explain Increases in Young People’s Psychological Distress Over Time?” Social Science and Medicine 71.10 [November 2010]: 1819–30.)