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, June 17, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 21)

The Topic: Education or Marriage in Britain?   

The News Story: UK Government Should Provide Parenting Lessons

The New Research: Families Breaking Up; Young Adult Minds Coming Unglued


The News Story: UK Government Should Provide Parenting Lessons

Britain’s leading public health official, Professor John Ashton, prompted cries of “nanny state” when he recommended recently that the government provide parenting lessons.

According to a Newsweek story, Ashton said that “it is up to the government to take responsibility for the next generation, many of whom struggle with eating disorders, anxiety and depression.” Ashton recommends that parents “be more open with their children,” citing a “Victorian prudery legacy” that keeps parents from discussing difficult topics with their children. Specifically in focus is teen well-being, and the story claims that an alarming 21,000 teens are admitted to U.K. hospitals each year for deliberate self-harm, up from 12,000 a mere decade ago.

And while classes on “openness” and encouraging your teen’s self-esteem may not do any harm—though that seems doubtful given Ashton’s suggestion that the state would be better at parenting than parents themselves—research suggests that in the wake of the divorce revolution such public health recommendations are missing the point.

(Elisabeth Perlman, “U.K Government Should Provide Parenting Lessons: Public Health President,” Newsweek, June 15, 2016.)


The New Research: Families Breaking Up; Young Adult Minds Coming Unglued

Permissive divorce laws give children no voice when parents choose to part. But evidence continues to mount that those children suffer tremendously when parents fail to make an enduring marriage. In a study recently completed at Charles University in Prague, researchers identify serious mental disorders as symptoms of the suffering occasioned by family disintegration.

Intent on identifying the “potential mental health risks related to stress influences associated with a mother’s marital status,” the authors of the new study parse data collected from 364 19-year-old Czechs participating in the European Longitudinal Study of Parenthood and Childhood. With these data, the researchers can diagnose the mental distress occasioned when parental marriages fission—or never form in the first place. These data indicate that living without a father disorders the minds of young men, and that living with a stepfather entails similarly malign consequences for young women.

As they examine the data for the young men in their study, the Czech scholars detect psychopathology in significantly elevated dissociative symptoms—including “feelings of depersonalization, derealization, [and] psychogenic amnesia”—among those living with never-married and divorced mothers (p < 0.01 with young men living in intact two-parent homes as the baseline). The researchers speculate that psychological dissociation develops among fatherless boys because “boys need a specific kind of separateness from mothers to find male identity, for which they need a father or father figure.”

When they shift their focus to the young women in the study, the researchers find the disturbing incidence of dissociation not among those living without fathers but rather among those living with stepfathers. Compared to peers living in intact two-parent families, young women from stepfamilies are significantly more likely to manifest symptoms of psychological dissociation (p < 0.01). The Czech scholars see in this pattern evidence that “girls had more difficulties interacting with stepfathers than [did] sons.”

The researchers interpret their findings against the backdrop of earlier studies establishing a clear “relationship between fatherlessness and children’s emotional and behavioral problems” and showing that “divorce and destructive couple conflict represent major risk factors for many forms of dysfunction and psychopathological manifestations in children.” The authors of this new study also find relevant context for their conclusions in earlier studies indicating that “children from single parent or blended families have increased vulnerability to traumatic and other stressful life events.”

The Czech scholars call for “further research . . . to explain to what extent psychodynamic factors play significant roles in these family processes associated with dissociation.” But we already have enough research on hand to know that the minds of many young people have been scrambled by parental breakups, facilitated by our swinging-door divorce laws. 

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, New Research, The Family in America 30.1 [Winter 2016]. Study: Petr Bob et al., “Dissociative Symptoms and Mother’s Marital Status in a Young Adult Population,” Medicine 94.2 [2015]: e408, Web.)