Behavior and demographics associated with divorce may have greater effect on children than actual divorce, study says

December 18, 1999

Mothers' Behavior in Adolescence Predicts Behavior of Off-Spring

(Washington, DC)--While divorce is increasingly common, a yet-to-be-answered question is, what is the definitive effect of divorce on children? Do children of divorce experience problems because of the divorce, or was the children's problem behavior present before the marital separation? New research suggests that divorce, in and of itself, does not necessarily lead to children's problem behavior. Rather, mothers' delinquency prior to marriage predicts divorce 14 years in the future and accounts for many of the behavior problems found among children after divorce.

The study, "Delinquent Behavior, Future Divorce or Nonmarital Childbearing, and Externalizing Behavior Among Offspring: A 14-Year Prospective Study," published in the December 1999 issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Family Psychology and written by Robert E. Emery, Ph.D., Mary C. Waldron, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Aaron, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia; and Katherine M. Kitzmann, Ph.D., of the University of Memphis, was based on the authors' review of data on 1,204 mothers and their children drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY)ÐChild Sample. The NLSY research began in 1979 and assessed young men and women (ages 14-21) on demographics, education and employment. Various psychological measures were also taken of the participants, including self-reports of delinquent behavior. By 1986, 3,322 of the women in the study had given birth to 5,876 children. Assessments of these children have continued biennially.

The authors found that the female adolescents' delinquent activities in 1980 significantly predicted their divorced status in 1994. Furthermore, the mother's current age, as well as her age when she had her first child, were both related to children's externalizing behavior, such that younger mothers had children who exhibited more behavioral difficulties. Additionally, a mother's delinquent behaviorÐdefined as abusing drugs, being delinquent at school and having contact with the criminal justice systemÐwhile the mother herself was an adolescent, was positively correlated with her age when she had her first child and her poverty status in both 1980 and 1994.

The link between a mother's prior delinquent behavior and her child's present problem behavior (defined as antisocial behavior, anxious or depressed behavior, social withdrawal or engaging in high amounts of parental conflict) remained strong even when the mother's current marital status and other demographic factors were taken into account statistically. Therefore, the authors conclude, parents' personal behavior and personality characteristics have a larger impact on their children's behavior than does their married, never married, or divorced status.

"Parental antisocial behavior is a good candidate among a host of behavioral and personality variables that might lead to nonrandom selection into single parent status and, thereby, explain the association between divorce or nonmarital childbirth and children's behavior problems," write the authors. The authors suggest that there are factors that "predispose families to both divorce and to having troubled children."

The authors, however, point out two potential caveats about the analysis: (1) the absence of data on the fathers of the children, and (2) the fact that the NLSY sample, although a national sample, is heavily weighted toward young parents and their children, which means that the sample is overrepresentative of minority groups, lower income families and teenage mothers.
Article: "Delinquent Behavior, Future Divorce or Nonmartial Childbearing, and Externalizing Behavior Among Offspring: A 14-Year Prospective Study," Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 4.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office.

Lead author available for interview:

Dr. Robert Emery, Director, Center for Children, Families and the Law
University of Virginia
804 924-0671

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 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 52 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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