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NIH Record

Adults Whose Parents Divorced: How Are They Doing?

By Susan M. Persons

Attempting to understand the effects of divorce on children over the last half century is no small challenge. Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist and professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, has responded to this complex issue with a study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development titled, "Effects of Divorce on Children." Cherlin presented his findings at a recent lecture sponsored by the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin

"Divorce and its implications for the health and well-being of children is one of our society's strongest concerns," Cherlin said. "And divorce does have long-term negative effects on some children. However, our study indicates that we may be overestimating the deleterious effects of divorce, and that part of the seeming effect of parental divorce on adults is a result of factors that were present before the parents' marriages dissolved."

Cherlin refuted the conclusions of a study by Judith Wallerstein, a clinical psychologist, who raised concerns about the fate of children of divorced families in her book, Second Chances. "Wallerstein is a talented clinician, but her research is biased because the children in her study were much more troubled than the average child and were not representative of the typical experience in the U.S.," Cherlin reported. "Her book is very pessimistic because the kids of the 60 families she was treating were, in fact, doing terribly. For a scientifically accurate picture of how kids are doing, a broader national sample is necessary."

Although Cherlin estimates that approximately 82 percent of children whose parents divorce will not experience lasting difficulties, he is concerned about the 20 percent or so who do. "Divorce does raise the risk of experiencing mental health problems by 30 percent. Data on children show that for the first year or two following divorce, there is a crisis period, especially for boys." It is not known why there is a gender difference. "Girls may be more resilient, or just show fewer symptoms," he said. "These first years post-divorce are especially difficult because of economic stress and family disorganization, but over time, most kids return to normal development," he added.

Cherlin also reported that as children reach adolescence, having a parent who is dating at the same time a child is experiencing puberty can be problematic. In addition, there may be a "delayed effect" from the divorce that occurred years earlier. There may also be a "bidirectional effect," meaning that a problem the child is having that is unrelated to the divorce may be a causal factor in the divorce. For example, families are more likely to divorce if a child has a serious illness or a behavioral problem. The "bidirectional effect" may occur at any life stage.

"Following adolescence, a parental divorce that occurred during childhood or adolescence appears to continue to have a negative effect when a person is in his or her twenties and early thirties," said Cherlin. "In adulthood, parental divorce raises the risk of long-term mental health problems, but most individuals do not show signs of mental health problems."

Cherlin based his conclusions on data from the British National Child Development Study. This study, conducted since 1958, has followed the development of more than 17,000 children from birth through adulthood, with interviews at ages 7, 11, 16, 22 and 33. Using statistical modeling techniques, Cherlin and his colleagues were able to estimate the effects of divorce on subsequent mental health problems.

The next NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences seminar, "Social Stress, Social Ties, and Susceptibility to the Common Cold," will feature Dr. Sheldon Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University on Friday, Nov. 14 from 10 to 11 a.m. in Wilson Hall, Bldg. 1.

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