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 

Coming Up Short: The Long-Term Cost of Parental Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

A steady drip, drip, drip of social science is steadily eroding the myth that children quickly overcome the pain their parents’ divorce may cause them. The latest evidence that parental divorce hurts children not just for a year or two but for decades comes out of a study of children’s growth patterns recently completed at Indiana University. This new study concludes that early parental divorce significantly stunts the growth of young men, so signaling significant long-term health issues.

To assess the effects of parental divorce and parental death on children’s growth, the Indiana scholars scrutinize data collected from 16,207 individuals interviewed between 1938 and 1963. Analysis of these data reveals a very clear adverse relationship between both parental divorce and parental death on young men’s growth. “The death of either parent, or their divorce, during early childhood [before age seven],” the researchers conclude, “was associated with delayed puberty and reduced stature, in men.”

The pattern for young women proves more ambiguous. “[The father’s] death during early childhood was associated with earlier puberty,” remark the researchers, “which was in turn associated with shorter adult stature.” However, the researchers could adduce “no evidence of a direct relationship between childhood family disruption and adult height” for young women. 

The results seem to indicate that “men are more sensitive to family disruption than are women,” perhaps because “male hormonal responses [are] more sensitive to father absence than . . . those of young women.”

But the researchers realize that the disparity in results for men and women might actually be an artifact of the historical era from which their data are drawn. “The current study uses older data,” the researchers concede, “which may explain why death is more important for women than divorce is.” In recent decades parental death has become decidedly less common than it was in the early decades of the twentieth century, while parental divorce has grown more common. The researchers suggest that “it is possible that in this historical US environment, the nutritional stress of family disruption and the psychosocial stress of family disruption may be cancelling one another out” in the findings for women. On the one hand, “from a simple nutritional perspective, family disruption is expected to slow growth and delay puberty [in young women], and delayed puberty in women is correlated with taller height.” However, on the other hand, “existing empirical evidence suggests that family disruption tends to be associated with earlier puberty for girls, perhaps due to psychological stress accelerating development, and earlier puberty predicts shorter height in women.” The researchers further conjecture that during the decades when their data were collected “nutritional factors may have been more important than in [the] modern-day US.”

Still, the overall implications of the findings appear clear to the Indiana scholars, especially when they are looking at young men: “If adult height is a marker of lifetime health status, this [study] indicates that family breakdown during early childhood has long-reaching health repercussions, particularly for boys, manifested throughout the lifespan.”

Indeed, the researchers believe that their findings add to “existing evidence that childhood family disruption is associated with a number of social and health disadvantages for children later in life.” The Indiana scholars acknowledge in this context that a 2002 British study revealed that “parental divorce before age six was associated with shorter adult stature” for both males and females.

With good reason, the researchers stress in their conclusion that “familial disruption during early childhood has far-reaching repercussions for the health of both men and women.”

Perhaps it is time to tune out progressives who prate on and on about the resilience of children affected by parental divorces and start working to prevent these terribly harmful divorces from happening.


(Paula Sheppard, Justin R. Garcia, and Rebecca Sear, “Childhood Family Disruption and Adult Height: Is There a Mediating Role of Puberty?” Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 2015.1 [2015]: 332-42.)