Mental health of children most harmed before divorce

December 13, 2005

The most harm to a child's mental health takes place in the years before parents split up, according to a University of Alberta study that suggests staying together for the sake of the kids is not always the right choice.

"Perhaps we should pay more attention to what happens to kids in the period leading up to parental divorce rather than directing all our efforts to helping children after the event occurs," said Dr. Lisa Strohschein, from the U of A's Department of Sociology. "For example, levels of child antisocial behaviour actually drop following parental divorce for kids living in highly dysfunctional families." Her work is published in the current edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Nearly one in two divorces in Canada involves dependent children. This trend has lent urgency to the ongoing debate as to whether parental divorce is damaging to child mental health. Earlier studies have compared children whose parents are divorced with those in intact two-parent families but failed to take into account the quality of family life prior to divorce. Strohschein looked at divorce as a process, which enabled her to track its effects on child mental health before, during and after the divorce event. This approach allows researchers to separate effects on child mental health that are actually due to divorce and not due to other family characteristics.

Strohschein compared children whose parents divorce between 1994 and 1998 with kids whose parents remained married during that period. Statistics Canada launched the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth in 1994 and continues to reinterview the original cohort of children every two years. The sample is made up of almost 17000 children of ages 0-11, with 88.3 per cent of those children participating in the third cycle of data collection. Using that data, Strohschein found that differences in child mental health exist well before the divorce event. In other words, in 1994--before a divorce took place--kids whose parents eventually divorce displayed higher levels of anxiety/depression and antisocial behavior than kids whose parents stay married.

She also found that, compared to parents who remain married, parents who divorce tend to be younger at initial interview and report higher levels of family dysfunction and depression, and lower levels of marital satisfaction. These characteristics that put them at risk of divorce are also associated with child mental health. "Once these family characteristics were taken into account, differences in mental health at the initial interview between children whose parents divorced and children whose parents remained married can no longer be detected," said Strohschein. "This suggests that troubled families are at risk for both divorce and child mental health problems, and calls into question the assumption that it is the divorce event that is necessarily damaging to child mental health."

In addition to these pre-existing differences, there are changes in child mental health that occur after a divorce. On average, levels of child anxiety/depression increase following parental divorce. But in some highly dysfunctional families, the level of a child's antisocial behaviour drops after a divorce.

Adding one more cycle will allow researchers to track even more precisely how children adjust to parental divorce over time, says Strohschein, who has already begun to investigate this issue with a fourth wave of data.
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Her research was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship and the New Investigators Network of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

University of Alberta

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