Relocation of children after parents' divorce may lead to long-term problems, study suggests

June 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Children of divorced parents who are separated from one parent due to the custodial or non-custodial parent moving beyond an hour's drive from the other parent are significantly less well off on many child mental and physical health measures compared to those children whose parents don't relocate after divorce, according to new research. The findings, say the study authors, cast doubt on the current legal presumption that a move by a custodial parent to a destination that the moving parent believes will improve his or her life will also be in the best interest of the children that moves with them.

The study appears in the June issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Family Psychology, a special issue on linkages between family psychology and the law, and is the first study to provide direct evidence of the effect of relocation on children after divorce.

Psychologists Sanford L. Braver, Ph.D., Bill Fabricius, Ph.D., and Law Professor Ira Ellman (the primary drafter of the American Law Institute's recently released Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution) of Arizona State University conducted their research by dividing 602 college students into groups on the basis of their divorced parents' move-away status. One group consisted of those in which neither parent moved more than an hour's drive from the original family home and the other consisted of students with at least one parent who had moved more than an hour's drive from the original family home. Both groups were tested on various measures of psychological and emotional adjustment, general life satisfaction, current health status, their relationship to and among the parents and perceptions about having lived "a hard life." The students were also assessed on the extent of financial help they were currently receiving from their parents.

Results show significant negative effects associated with the long distance (more than an hour's drive) parental moves by the mother or father, with or without the child, as compared with divorced families in which neither parent moved away beyond an hour's drive. "As compared with divorced families in which neither parent moved, students from families in which one parent moved received less financial support from their parents (even after correcting for differences in the current financial conditions of the groups), worried more about that support, felt more hostility in their interpersonal relations, suffered more distress related to their parents' divorce, perceived their parents less favorably as sources of emotional support and as role models, believed the quality of their parents' relations with each other to be worse, and rated themselves less favorably on their general physical health, their general life satisfaction, and their personal and emotional adjustment," according to the study.

While the results of the study do show many poor outcomes are associated with postdivorce parental moves, the authors warn that the results are correlational and cannot prove that the moves are the main or even a contributing cause of the negative effects. Additional longitudinal research is needed, say the authors, which controls for factors that also may play a role, such as premove parental conflict. Alternative explanations for the results could include that moving per se tends to be harmful for children, that families with characteristics that are harmful for children also tend to move or a combination of both or other factors.

However, the researchers conclude, "there is no empirical basis on which to justify a legal presumption that a move by a custodial parent to a destination she or he plausibly believes will improve their life will necessarily confer benefits on the children they take with them."
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Article: "Relocation of Children After Divorce and Children's Best Interests: New Evidence and Legal Considerations," Sanford L. Braver, Arizona State University, Ira M. Ellman, Arizona State University and University of California, Berkeley and William V. Fabricius, Arizona State University; Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/fam/press_releases/june_2003/fam172206.html

Reporters: Study lead author Sanford L. Braver, Ph.D., can be reached at 480-965-5405 (W) or 480-456-0441 (H) or by e-mail at Sanford.braver@asu.edu. Co-author Ira Ellman is also available for media interviews. He can be reached at 480-965-2125 (W) or 480-968-5676 (H) or by e-mail at ira.ellman@asu.edu.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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