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 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Topic: Children of Divorce—No Easy Solution

The News Story: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Children’s Stress During A Divorce 

The New Research: Parental Divorce? A Public Health Concern


The News Story: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Children’s Stress During A Divorce

Every now and then, media outlets publish lists of “tips” that will supposedly ameliorate the damage that divorce inflicts on children. HuffPost Canada recently published one of these lists.

In perhaps one of the most serious understatements of the year, the story begins by reminding adults that separation and divorce “are not only difficult for parents, but for children as well." But children “should always feel loved and supported when their parents are splitting up.” And to help that process, the HuffPost offers some advice from Dr. Jillian Roberts’ newest book, Why Do Families Change? What are the mysterious answers to helping children cope? “Ensure children are kept emotionally safe”; “Protect your children’s hearts”; and “Keep things simple for your kids” are some of the vague pieces of advice. 

But research reveals that no matter how many “how-to-divorce-nicely” posts splitting parents may follow, their children are still suffering, and greatly. 

(Sources: Monica Markovinovic, “5 Ways To Reduce Your Children’s Stress During A Divorce,” Huffington Post Canada, March 22, 2017.)


The New Research: Parental Divorce? A Public Health Concern

When parents divorce, judges and lawyers understandably consider it their concern. But researcher Vittorio Carlo Vezzetti of Italy’s Agenzia di Tutela della Salute dell'Insubria believes that it is time to recognize parental divorce as a public-health issue. Vezzetti complains that to date “divorce involving minor children . . . [has] unfortunately [been] considered by authorities only as a purely juridical problem.” But a merely legal perspective leaves out of consideration “the most up-to-date knowledge on biochemical and psychobiological aspects of parental loss and other childhood adversities during divorce involving minor children.” To give that knowledge due weight, Vezzetti asserts, parental divorce deserves scrutiny not as chiefly a legal issue but rather as “primarily a question of public health.” 

Perhaps decades ago, a strictly legal approach to parental divorce might have seemed sensible. That no longer looks reasonable to Vezzetti. “Now,” he insists, “scientific research, . . . [some] making use of animal models, is demonstrating the biological basis of the problem and the indisputable consequences on the well-being and health of children.” That research, he explains, has identified “psychobiological damage associated with parental loss,” damage that may incubate long-term adverse “consequences . . . apparent after 10, 20, or 30 years.” No wonder Vezzetti warns that the epidemic of parental divorce causing parental loss will “result in a heavy burden for future worldwide generations.”

Pressing the urgency of regarding “divorce involving children [as] a question of public health,” Vezzetti cites the troubling numbers: “parental separation concerns more than 10 million minors in Europe, and more than one million children experience every year the divorce of their parents in [the] United States.”   And though he understands that children can lose a parent through death, Vezzetti realizes that “parental separation is in fact the first cause of parental loss in Western countries.” 

The harm suffered by children consequent to such parental loss stands out in a raft of studies Vezzetti surveys. From a 2014 study, he adduces evidence that “early parental separation has stronger and wider effects on adult psychopathology than parental death” with “maternal and paternal separations . . . almost equally associated with most forms of psychopathology.” In a 2003 study of over one million Swedish children, Vezzetti finds data indicating that “children growing up with single parents were more than twice as likely [as peers from intact families] to experience a serious psychiatric disorder, commit or attempt suicide, or develop an alcohol addiction.” And from a 2000 study, he draws sobering indications that “loss or separation from parents in childhood does have a negative impact on health problems and psychological adjustment in midlife,” with the effects of parental divorce “more pronounced” than those of parental death as an antecedent of “lower education and income attainment . . . increase in drug use, and lower levels of family support which may result in a greater number of health problems later in life.”  

An even more horrific—though indirect—consequence of parental loss emerges in the studies on child sexual abuse that Vezzetti examines, studies establishing that a disproportionate fraction of victims of child sexual abuse are “children [who] lived with either a stepfather or the mother’s boyfriend.”

Behind the unmistakably human tragedy children experience when they lose a parent, Vezzetti discerns neurological and biological responses so deep they transcend species boundaries. Probing these responses, Vezzetti cites a 2013 study concluding that “father absence in the monogamous California mouse impairs social behavior” as it adversely changes the brains of fatherless young mice, causing them to lose normal functioning of “dopamine and glutamate synapses in the medial prefrontal cortex.” He also points to a 2006 study likewise documenting a neurological deficiency in the brains of “animals which were raised in single-mother families.” This study, Vezzetti explains, exposes “an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory synapses in the anterior cingulate cortex of father-deprived animals.” In Vezzetti's view, such studies cast doubt on “the general assumption that a father has less impact on the synaptic maturation of his offspring’s brain than the mother.”

Given all of this, it is clear that children will enjoy far better health—psychological, emotional, and physical—when their parents stay together, and that public-health officials would do well to begin encouraging such enduring marriages.

(Source: Bryce Christensen and Nicole M. King, forthcoming in “New Research,” The Natural Family. Study: Vittorio Carlo Vezzetti, “New Approaches to Divorce with Children: A Problem of Public Health,” Health Psychology Open 3.2 [2016]: 2055102916678105, Web.)