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 

December 3, 2019

The Topic: Downplaying Divorce

The News Story: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to Improve U.S. Health

The New Research: Doctor’s Orders—Intact Parental Marriages for Kids

The News Story: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to improve U.S. health 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently issued a press release on new findings detailing how “adverse childhood experiences” (or ACEs) can negatively affect lifelong health. The press release defines ACEs as such things as “experiencing abuse, witnessing violence or substance misuse in the home, and having a parent in jail.” “Exposure to ACEs,” the researchers found, “can result in extreme or repetitive toxic stress responses that can cause both immediate and long-term physical and emotional harms.” So serious are ACEs that they are linked to “at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death.”

Interestingly, nowhere in the press release—and only once in a linked summary of the full report—is parental divorce mentioned as one of these “adverse childhood experiences.” This is an oversight, given that many of the other ACEs (violence in the home, etc.) actually increase in prevalence when parents split. In fact, decades of research have shown that what protects children best is marriage. Perhaps in addition to recommending that concerned citizens might “Recognize challenges families face and offer support and encouragement to reduce stress,” the CDC could also have boldly encouraged married parents to stay married.

(Source: “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to improve U.S. health,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Press Release, Nov. 5, 2019.)


The New Research: Doctor’s Orders: Intact Parental Marriages for Kids

When conservatives speak out against parental divorce, progressives dismiss them as foolishly retrograde, out of touch with twenty-first-century realities. Perhaps these progressives will listen more respectfully to Jane Anderson, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Surveying available empirical research, Dr. Anderson concludes in an article recently published in the Linacre Quarterly that intact parental marriages greatly benefit American children and that parental divorce seriously hurts them.

From “decades of research evaluating the impact of family structure on the health and well-being of children,” Anderson adduces compelling evidence that “children living with their married, biological parents consistently have better physical, emotional, and academic well-being” than do peers living in other home circumstances. Consequently, “divorce and parental separation are damaging to children.”

Anderson enumerates the harms that parental divorce visits upon children at sobering length. Compared to peers living in an intact nuclear family, children living with a single parent are almost twice as likely to suffer from poor health (12% vs. 22%). Nor are the disadvantages children face in single-parent households limited to deficits in physical health. Children in such households—as well as those in stepfamilies—are significantly more likely than peers in intact nuclear families to develop “a learning disability or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder regardless of parents’ education, income, or area of residence.” Anderson further points out that “parents who divorce also experience adverse effects on their physical, emotional, and financial well-being, which may . . .  in turn affect their children,” compromising those children’s well-being.

Sadly, the vulnerabilities created by parental divorce are stubbornly long-lived. Anderson cites large-scale studies concluding that ten years after a parental divorce “children with divorced parents continued to score significantly lower on measures of academic achievement, conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept, and social relations” than did peers whose parents stayed together. Long-term research indeed suggests that “many children never have full ‘recovery’ [from a parental divorce] as each special event, holiday, or celebration reminds the child of his [or] her loss.”

To be sure, Anderson recognizes that parental divorce actually benefits children when such divorce delivers them from “the most dysfunctional environments.”  However, she stresses, “with the introduction of no-fault divorce laws, it is likely that the child has not experienced severe levels of parental discord, so the divorce has more adverse effects on the child.”

Taking to heart the best interests of the nation’s children, Anderson declares that “the best scientific literature to date suggests that, with the exception of parents faced with unresolvable marital violence, children fare better when parents work at maintaining the marriage. Consequently, society should make every effort to support healthy marriages and to discourage married couples from divorcing.”

Anderson concludes by challenging her medical colleagues to recognize and act on the clear implications of medical science: “Given [the] tremendous costs borne by all individuals affected by divorce, as well as the costs to society, it is the responsibility of physicians—especially pediatricians, who care for children in the context of their families—to advocate for public health policies that promote marriage and decrease the likelihood of divorce.”

It is past time for progressives to give up the notion that it is those who decry parental divorce who are out of touch with reality.

(Source: Bryce Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America 30.1 [2016]. Study: Jane Anderson, “The Impact of Family Structure on the Health of Children: Effects of Divorce,” Linacre Quarterly 81.4 (2014): 378-87, emphasis added.)