Study Disputes Divorce as Cause of Child’s Problems


A major study of more than 20,000 children disputes the long-held belief that divorce--and the resulting absence of a parent--triggers long-term behavioral and psychological problems in many children.

Rather, the study suggests that, particularly among boys, many of the problems arise during the period before the divorce occurs, when the children are growing up in a sharply dysfunctional family.

The study of children in Great Britain and the United States, published today in the journal Science, is considered significant because an estimated 40% of U.S. children will witness the breakup of their parents’ marriage before they reach the age of 18.


The international research team, headed by sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University, concludes that parents should not stay together for the sake of the children when severe problems exist within the marriage. They also recommend that new efforts be made to provide emotional support for children in such dysfunctional families.

“Our study suggests that divorce isn’t an event that occurs one day when a judge raps a gavel,” Cherlin said, “but a process that begins long before then and extends long afterward.”

“This is going to prove to be a major study,” said clinical psychologist Robert Emery of the University of Virginia. “After 20 to 30 years of research on the effects of divorce, this is the first large-scale study to look at children’s adjustment before rather than after their parents’ separation and divorce.” Virtually all previous studies have looked at children only after a divorce has occurred, he said.

Emery cautioned that the new study “does not mean that there are no ill effects of divorce, does not mean that divorce isn’t difficult. It does mean that we have to be careful about attributing behavioral difficulties in children to the event of a divorce rather than to other aspects of family relations.”

Clinical psychologist Judith Wallerstein of the Center for Families in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif., said: “The piece that is being added here that is very valuable is how troubled many of these children are in the years before the marriage came apart. It’s a very useful addition, but I don’t think it changes the issues we’ve been struggling with, particularly the weakening of the family in America.”

The study is based largely on what Cherlin called a “remarkable” British study whose results have become available to researchers only recently. The National Child Development Study, originally research into childhood mortality, began with interviews of 17,414 women who gave birth in England, Wales and Scotland during the week of March 3 to March 9, 1958--nearly 98% of all women giving birth during that period.


The mothers were interviewed again when the children were age 7 and 11, as were the children’s teachers. The interviews provided information about the children’s behavioral and emotional problems, if any, and performance in school.

The results of the interviews remained locked in the vaults of the British Health Ministry for many years and were only recently made available to other investigators. Cherlin and his colleagues identified 239 children whose parents obtained a divorce in the period between the second and third interviews.

Those children showed more behavior problems--including temper tantrums, reluctance to go to school, disobedience and fights with other children--at age 11 and scored lower on reading and mathematics tests than did children in intact marriages. Boys from divorces, for example, demonstrated 19% more behavioral problems, as rated by their mothers, than did boys whose parents remained together. On the same scale, girls demonstrated about 14% more behavioral problems.

But the researchers also found that for the boys demonstrating behavior problems at age 11, about half of those difficulties were present at age 7, before the parents were divorced. The effect was not as pronounced for girls, however: Girls displaying problems at age 11 demonstrated such problems at age 7 at less than a quarter of that rate.

Similarly, the children of divorce, especially the boys, showed greater behavioral problems as rated by teachers and lower scores on reading and math tests than did children from intact marriages. Many of those problems were also evident in the earlier interviews before the divorce.

The researchers then turned to a study of American children, the National Study of Children which began in 1976 with a survey of 2,279 randomly chosen children between the ages of 7 and 11. The children were then re-interviewed in 1981 when they were between the ages of 11 and 16.


The results for boys were similar. At the second interview, the boys from divorced families showed about 12% more behavioral problems, but had demonstrated similar problems at about half that rate at the first interview while their parents were married. For girls, however, there was a sharp change: Girls from divorced families showed no more behavioral problems than those from intact families. But the difference between boys and girls is not surprising, according to Wallerstein, who is author of the 1989 best-selling book “Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce.”

Wallerstein has found that behavioral problems in girls typically show up long after the divorce, most often “in late adolescence and young adulthood, when their relationships with men move to center stage. Those relationships are very conflicted--they are very frightened of being abandoned and betrayed. One of the long-term effects for girls is a very high divorce rate.”

Overall, Cherlin said, “Children in intact marriages that have longstanding intense conflict are worse off than other kids. At the extreme, among families wracked by intense conflict, violence and substance abuse, many children would be better off if their parents split up. But in the average divorce, where one parent is merely bored or unfulfilled, I’m not at all convinced that children are better off if parents divorce.”

Cherlin suggests that a greater effort should be made to provide support groups for children in unhappy marriages, as is now done in some cases for children of divorces.

But the greater need, according to Virgnia’s Emery, “is for educating parents that their relationship affects their children. Kids are incredibly sensitive to anger between their parents, even during the first couple of years of life.”

His conclusion: “There’s a lot of truth to the old saying, ‘If you are going to fight, don’t do it in front of the kids.’ ”