Bad news for Hispanic teens: parents' marital disruption hurts them least

September 17, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Compared to teens from other racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic adolescents don't experience nearly the level of problems during the process of their parents' divorce or separation.

But that's not something to be glad about.

New research suggests that Hispanic teens aren't as affected by their parents' marital disruption -- including divorce and separation -- only because they already face a host of difficulties and disadvantages before the breakup.

"For many Hispanic adolescents, their life situation is already poor before their family dissolves - there may not be much further for them to drop," said Yongmin Sun, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus.

The study showed the European and Asian American teens faced the most serious problems as the result of parental divorce or separation. The reason is the flip-side of what happens to Hispanic youth: European and Asian Americans start out with the most advantages in terms of well-being and resources, so they have the furthest to fall, Sun said.

African American teens showed slightly fewer problems than their European and Asian American peers before family disruption, but not to the level of Hispanics.

The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Sun conducted the study with Yuanzhang Li of the Allied Technology Group.

While some people may be surprised that African American teens didn't respond similarly to Hispanics in the study, Sun said the results showed that in terms of overall well-being and parental resources, African Americans were doing better than Hispanics pre-divorce. That helps explain why parents' marital disruption has a greater negative effect on African Americans than it does on Hispanic Americans.

Data for this study came from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which surveyed thousands of students beginning in 8th grade in 1988. This study involved 9,252 students who were surveyed in 1990 and again in 1992 when they were in their 10th and 12th grades. In this study, about 700 children who experienced family disruption between the two waves of data collection were compared to the other students.

The researchers examined how the children fared before and after the divorce on nine well-being indicators in three broad areas: academic success, psychological well-being and behavioral problems. They also examined the families' economic and human resources (parent income and educational level), as well as social resources. Social resources include how well the parents and children get along with each other, how often they talk to each other and how often they do things together.

The results showed that, when compared to Hispanic youth, European, Asian and African American adolescents showed wider and greater levels of problems as the result of family disruption.

European-American students showed difficulties in more areas than did African Americans, but did not show higher levels of difficulties in each individual area.

Hispanics stood out from the other groups.

"In this study, Hispanics started off with a large number of difficulties and disadvantages in their lives," Sun said. "When that's the case, family crises like divorce may not add much to the original problems."

The results also challenged the theory that divorce doesn't cause the same level of problems in children in racial and ethnic groups where divorce is more common, because divorce is less stigmatized in those communities.

This study found that the negative effects of divorce were still relatively strong in African Americans, who have the highest divorce rate of the groups studied. "Just because divorce is more common in an ethnic or racial group, it doesn't necessarily make it easier for children who are going through such a family disruption," Sun said.

In another important finding, the study showed that parents' marital disruption hurts teens of different racial and ethnic groups in different ways.

Asian American adolescents seemed to be affected most by a shortage of family social resources in predivorced families - meaning they missed things like talking to their parents and spending time with them. African American teens, on the other hand, were most hurt by the shortage of economic resources in predivorced families. European Americans were equally hurt by shortages in both types of resources.

One possible explanation for the sharp contrast between African and Asian Americans is that Asian American families generally enjoy a high level of economic and human resources, so that financial difficulties associated with predivorced families may not be as harmful to adolescents' well-being.

The results also confirmed several earlier studies by Sun that found many of the problems seen in adolescents of divorced parents are evident before their parents' divorce or separation is final. Results showed that even more than a year before the divorce, children of divorced parents showed more problems than children whose parents remained married.
This study was supported in part by a grant from the Ohio State University Initiative in Population Research which in turn was awarded through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Contact: Yongmin Sun

Written by Jeff Grabmeier

Ohio State University

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