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 

Winter
2016

The Children of Divorce—Anything but Resilient


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


When pressed to admit that the divorce revolution they led has hurt children, progressives invoke the myth of children’s resilience. Yes, they say, parental divorce does hurt children, but—not to worry—children are resilient: they bounce back in a year or two. But social science can be cruel to pleasant progressive myths. The latest empirical insult to this myth comes from a study recently completed at Vanderbilt University, a study showing that more than four decades after parental divorce, the children affected still manifest the malign effects of that divorce upon their health.

This damning new evidence comes out of a sophisticated analysis of how “adverse social environments . . . become biologically embedded during the first years of life with potentially far-reaching implications for health across the life course.” To be sure, parental divorce counts as only one part of the formula for “social disadvantage” that the Vanderbilt scholars use in gauging “associations of social disadvantage assessed in childhood with cardiometabolic function and chronic disease status more than forty years later.” However, as these researchers press their analysis of the linkages between social disadvantage in childhood and chronic health problems in adulthood, family disintegration emerges as a particularly important component of that social disadvantage, more important, in fact, that low household income.

 To analyze the relationship between social disadvantage in childhood and chronic health problems in adulthood, the researchers carefully examine data for 566 men and women born between 1959 and 1966, individuals for whom they have the social data necessary to formulate “an index that combine[s] information on adverse socioeconomic and family stability factors experienced between birth and age 7 years.” Drawing from data collected in 2005-2007 from these same individuals as adults, the researchers look for correlations between their index of childhood social disadvantage and adult health problems as measured in two ways: first, in cardiometabolic risk (CMR), determined by combining data from eight CMR biomarkers (including waist circumference, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels); second, in a composite index derived by assessing eight chronic diseases (including  diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis).

And the correlations do stand out. Using a statistical model that accounts for differences in adult variables, such as adult social disadvantage and race, the researchers still find that “a high level of social disadvantage [in childhood] was significantly associated with both higher CMR (incident rate ratio = 1.69) and with a higher number of chronic diseases (incident rate ratio = 1.39) [in adults].” In other words, the data show that “children who experience high levels of childhood social disadvantage are more likely to have cardiometabolic dysregulation across multiple biological systems and also to be diagnosed with a higher number of chronic diseases more than 4 decades later.

The researchers repeat their statistical analysis in a more complex model that accounts for extensive background variables, including chronic disease in childhood, size for gestational age, adult smoking, and education. In this model, the linkage between childhood social disadvantage and chronic disease falls below the threshold for statistical significance. However, even in this model, the connection between childhood social disadvantage and CMR risk remains significant.

But the findings most lethal to the progressive myth of childhood resilience after parental divorce emerge when the Vanderbilt scholars carry out “analyses considering the 2 components of the social disadvantage score separately.” These analyses establish that “both family stability and childhood SES were significantly [and separately] associated with chronic disease,” while “family stability, but not childhood SES, was significantly associated with CMR.” Overall, the researchers therefore conclude that “the measure of family stability alone accounted for more variation in CMR and chronic disease than the childhood SES measures.”

As they reflect on their findings, the authors of the new study stress that the linkage they have limned between childhood social disadvantage and both cardiometabolic dysregulation and chronic disease in middle-aged adults is likely to “grow stronger over time as individuals begin to exhibit more age-related diseases.” But recognizing that one particular form of social disadvantage entails particularly pronounced long-term health risks, the researchers emphasize that “stability in the family environment is critical to setting children on a healthy trajectory early in life.”

The Vanderbilt researchers hope that their findings “can be leveraged toward changing public health policy, interventions, and clinical practice by shifting focus from individual health behaviors in adulthood to increased efforts to develop policies and interventions to reduce stressors in early childhood.”

With this study adding to the growing body of evidence of its long-term consequences, parental divorce deserves attention as a particularly malign childhood stressor demanding corrective action. Of course, to see that stressor and its remedies clearly, Americans must decisively repudiate the progressive myth of childhood resilience in overcoming its effects.

 

(Amy L. Non et al., “Childhood Social Disadvantage, Cardiometabolic Risk, and Chronic Disease in Adulthood,” American Journal of Epidemiology 180.3 [2014]: 263-71.)

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