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 

Thursday, January 7, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 1)

The Topic: D is for Divorce Day

The News Story: Happy Divorce Season! It’s That Time of Year Again

The New Research: Parental Divorce and the Long-Term Harm to Children’s Health

 

The News Story: Happy Divorce Season! It’s That Time of Year Again

The first working Monday after January 1 is aptly named “Divorce Day”—calls to family attorneys go up significantly, as couples who have tried to get through one last holiday season together finally decide to call it quits.

Alison Hawes, a specialist divorce and family lawyer with UK law firm Irwin Mitchell, told a UK news source that financial pressures—even more acute around Christmas—are also to blame in some 40% of these breakups. The story reports that for the past few years, the firm’s business in January has been up by about 25% as compared with a normal month. Concerned about the known consequences of divorce for families, the firm “is now working with the charity Kids In The Middle to reduce the impact of divorce and separation on children by providing a support network for people affected.”

But research indicates that if the firm really wants to help the victims of divorce, their efforts will have to extend far beyond the early childhood years.

(Source: Jimmy Nsubuga, “Happy Divorce Season! It’s That Time of the Year Again,” January 3, 2016.)

 

The New Research: Parental Divorce and the Long-Term Harm to Children’s Health

To minimize their discomfort, progressives often claim that the harm that children experience because of parental divorce is usually short-lived, something these children quickly outgrow. But a new study concludes that fifty-year-olds still feel the harmful effects of the parental divorces they experienced more than four decades earlier, effects evident in health impairments not shared by peers who grew up in intact families. Such is the finding of a study recently completed by researchers at Penn State University, and it is a finding carrying heavy consequences in a country struggling to contain medical costs yet unwilling to tighten its divorce laws.

The Penn State scholars began their inquiry conscious of “decades of research [that] have produced evidence that parental divorce is negatively associated with offspring outcomes from early childhood, through adolescence, and into the adult years.” They are aware, more particularly, of previous research documenting “negative effects of parental divorce on adult health” manifest in the relative number of overall health problems that adults experience, and in the relative risks for cancer and premature mortality. They attempt in their own investigation not only to gauge the long-term health impact of parental divorce but also to determine “how the timing of a parental divorce influences the total effect on adult health” and to identify the reasons—such as adverse changes in family socioeconomic status, in health behaviors, and in parental involvement with children—that parental divorce jeopardizes children’s long-term health.

To answer their research questions, the authors of the new study parse data collected at birth for 7,511 males and 7,126 females born in the week of March 3–9, 1958, in England, Scotland, or Wales, with follow-up collection of data coming at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. The researchers carefully analyze these data in a statistical model that accounts for differences in fathers’ socioeconomic class, so establishing that men and women who experienced a parental divorce before age seven were significantly more likely to rate their physical health as fair or poor at age fifty than were peers reared in intact families (p < 0.05 for both men and women). The same statistical model establishes a clear statistical link between parental divorce and elevated risk of low physical functioning at age fifty (p < 0.05 for both men and women).

Combing through the data, the researchers see a number of adverse effects of parental divorce on children. They note, for instance, that, compared to peers from intact families, children who had experienced parental divorce before age seven experienced significant deficits in parental involvement at age seven (p < 0.01 for both males and females) and manifested significantly more problem behaviors at age eleven (p < 0.05 for both males and females). They further note that, compared to peers reared in intact families, women who had experienced a parental divorce were significantly more like to see their own marriage end in divorce (p < 0.05), while men who had experienced a parental divorce also tended, though less markedly, to be more divorce-prone (p < 0.1). However, as they look for the prime reasons that parental divorce compromises the long-term health of the children affected, the researchers emphasize two acute disadvantages these children suffer relative to peers from intact families: 1) parental divorce markedly drives down the socioeconomic status (SES) of the household the child grows up in (p < 0.01 for both men and women, and 2) parental divorce drives up the likelihood that a child will smoke as an adult (p < 0.05).

Despite stressing socioeconomic status and adult smoking habits, the researchers recognize the broader effects of parental divorce, suggesting that for children who experience such a divorce, “subsequent declines in the accumulation of cognitive skills help complete the link to poorer health at age 50.”

The researchers conclude their study calling for the development of “strategies to intervene and offset the negative consequences of early life stressors,” such as those incident to parental divorce. Unfortunately, it rarely occurs to this generation of American social scientists that the strategies really needed to protect children from such early-life stressors are those that would restore some integrity to the nation’s divorce laws.

(Source: Forthcoming in “New Research,” The Family in America. Study: Jason R. Thomas and Robin S. Högnäs, “The Effect of Parental Divorce on the Health of Adult Children,” Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 6.3 [2015]: 279-302)