Damage of divorce on teens evident before break-up is final

August 01, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Many of the problems seen in adolescents of divorced parents are evident before the divorce is final, according to a new nationwide study.

The study showed that even about a year before the divorce, children of divorced parents showed more academic, psychological and behavioral problems than children whose parents remained married. Moreover, many of these problems were not much worse after the divorce than they were a year before the break-up, results showed.

"Divorce is a process, not just a single incident in these children's lives," said Yongmin Sun, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus.

"The negative effects that we associate with divorce are actually evident in teens at least one year before the marriage has ended."

The study appears in the August 2001 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Data for this study came from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which surveyed thousands of students beginning in 8th grade in 1988. Sun's study involved 10,088 students who were surveyed in 1990 and again in 1992. Between these two waves of data collection, 798 of the children experienced the divorce of their parents.

Sun examined how the children fared before and after the divorce in four broad areas: academic progress, psychological well-being, school behavior and substance abuse. In addition, the study looked at the extent of family dysfunction both before and after divorce.

The results showed that in every indicator of academic progress, psychological well-being and behavior problems, children showed maladjustment even before the divorce of their parents. This was true even after various demographic controls were taken into consideration.

For example, on average, students whose parents would later divorce scored lower on both math and reading tests than did students whose parents would stay together. They also showed more behavior problems in school and a less-positive self-concept.

"It's not accurate to say divorce doesn't matter at all, but it is true that much of the damage to adolescents has already occurred before the divorce," Sun said.

Sun said that many of the problems children of divorce face may be caused by the poor family environment that existed before the parents split up.

For example, children of pre-divorced parents were less likely to report having a good relationship with their parents than did children whose parents would stay together. Parents who would later divorce also attended fewer school events, and were less likely to do things or discuss school-related issues with their children. All of these factors were associated with lower well-being in their children, Sun said.

In addition, while several previous studies concluded that divorce affects boys more than girls, Sun said these results suggest girls are equally vulnerable. One reason may be that most previous studies have focused on younger children, while this study involved children with an average age of 16 at the time of the divorce. "Adolescents may react differently to divorce than do younger children," Sun said.

Sun cautioned that the results of the study don't mean that the actual divorce itself does not affect adolescents. This study only looked at teens about one year before and one year after divorce. Sun is currently working with a collaborator on a study that will examine children both further before and further after the divorce of their parents to see if more effects become evident.

Ohio State University

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