Divorce is a tricky situation, not just for the families dealing with the associated hardships, but for researchers trying to sort out the implications of the process on those involved. It’s pretty much accepted that divorce has a negative effect on the children, but to what extent? I’ve heard plenty of stories of parents staying together just for the children’s sake. But does that make sense? Are they affected by the resulting tension or fighting?
A new study from the University of Wisconsin attempts to make sense of at least a small piece of this puzzle. By making use of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Ph.D. candidate Hyun Sik Kim was able to sort through a massive amount of data to find some preliminary answers.
The study tracked 3,500 students from the kindergarten year of 1998-1999 through their 8th grade year and measured a rich set of family background variables. It also tracked their academic progress and behavioral patterns as seen from the eyes of their teachers.
For this particular study, Kim broke up divorce into three sections: pre-divorce, in-divorce and post-divorce. And after using some fancy-schmancy statistical analysis techniques that I will never understand, some results began to take shape.
The most intriguing result is that the children in the study did not appear to suffer any negative consequences either academically or socially in the months leading up to the divorce. Maybe they were lucky and there wasn’t any fighting. Perhaps the parents hid it well. Or perhaps there’s something about the actual physical process of divorce that hits children harder than anything leading up to it.
Because once the separation actually took place, they began to show signs of turmoil. They lagged behind their peers in mathematics, interpersonal skills and the internalization of their own feelings and behaviors. These all lingered during the post-divorce period for some time, as well. And though they eventually began making progress at the same rate as their peers, they never recovered from their time spent lagging behind.
On an interesting side note, the study found no negative consequences for reading or externalizing behaviors such as making friends, resolving conflict without fighting and resisting disruption of quiet times.
Now, keep in mind that there are many caveats in this research study. For starters, the study only included 142 children who went through divorce either in their 1st grade or 3rd grade years. The small set of data is one obvious problem, as is the fact that research suggests younger and older children react differently to divorce. The study only followed the children into high school, missing any big consequences later in life such as forming their own marriages. Finally, the study relied on teachers’ observations, some of which may see things that others miss or perhaps overemphasize certain characteristics.
And these issues only scratch the surface of potential mitigating factors. As you can see, researching divorce – or any social aspects of life – is a complicated and tricky thing to do. However, this study is a starting point and can direct future, more detailed studies in which way to go.
For example, I’m pretty sure someone will want to check out the no-negative-impacts for children in the months leading up to divorce. That seems counterintuitive to me.
But it might be true.