The main finding from the study is that both divorce and death consistently influence children in a negative way, although the overall effect size in each case is quite small. Specifically, following parental divorce, children tend to become worse at reading, at math, in their approach to learning, in their interpersonal skills, in their self-control, and in the way they internalize and externalize problems. Following parental death, only math and internalizing tend to deteriorate. The evidence for a causal effect—in both cases—is strong.I touched on the issue of how the least financial secure suffer excessive exposure to negative consequences in this post from last year, The brittleness of tactical decision-making.
Across all of these findings, children’s most common response to the divorce itself was to show no change. The reason why the overall effect is negative is that the proportion of children who did worse after divorce was slightly higher than the proportion of children who did better. For example, internalized problems increased for 24 percent of children and reduced for 10 percent; 22 percent of children got worse at math whereas 16 percent got better.
Interestingly, it’s not just divorce and death that have this effect. There are similar negative effects found in other studies where a parent leaves the household for other reasons—such as incarceration, migrating overseas for work, or being deployed overseas in the military.
It might be tempting to see all this as no big deal. Most kids cope. Some do better even if more do worse. Whether parental conflict was high or low before the divorce undoubtedly plays a role in this.
But there’s one further important variation. And this is new. Across all of these findings—math, reading, internalizing or externalizing problems—divorce had an especially marked negative effect when the parents were more at risk of divorce in the first place, whether due to their education level, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The children who do worst after divorce have parents who are least able to buffer its effects.
This might help explain why politicians and policy-makers tend to hold a relaxed view of family breakdown. Maybe they look at their own experience and their network of friends and can’t see the problem. But in families with fewer resources, when parents are less well-equipped to buffer its effects, divorce remains devastating for children.
The last paragraph also echoes Not quite as cynical as it seemed in which I discuss the fact that perception of a problem can be substantially shaped by the randomness of local direct experience rather than a measured understanding of means, modes, and median across this diverse country.
The research highlights just how complex and nuanced sociological/political issues can be.