Timing of parental divorce influences health of children when they reach middle age

18 December 2015

Children who see their parents divorce before age 7 are more likely than those who experience it at a later age to report health problems in their fifties, according to a new study.

Reduced family socio-economic status and higher likelihood of adult smoking as a result of divorce were the main reasons why these children went on to report poorer health when they reached 50.

Lead author, Dr Jason R. Thomas, Department of Sociology and Crimonology, Penn State University analysed information on almost 15,000 people born across England, Wales and Scotland whose lives are being followed by the National Child Development Study.

“Among individuals in the cohort, it is primarily members who experience a parental divorce before age seven that feel a long-lasting effect on their adult health.

“A decline in the family’s socio-economic status after a parental divorce is the most significant change that can lead to future negative outcomes. This finding is consistent with the idea that being able to make financial and social investments in your children’s future can have important returns for their educational attainment, and ultimately, adult health,” Dr Thomas explains.

For male cohort members, declining family socio-economic status and smoking in adulthood accounted each for a third of the effect of parental divorce on adult health. For females, family socio-economic status accounted for more than half of the effect, and smoking accounted for a third.

For both males and females, the researchers found that parental divorce at age 7 was associated with lower levels of parental involvement at the same age, as well as more behavioural problems at age 11.

“Our study adds to the growing evidence that shows how child development is the result of a cumulative process where negative early life experiences can have a detrimental effect on later life outcomes.

“We have revealed that parental divorce influences a variety of factors which can lead to poorer health in adulthood. Future research should therefore aim to develop strategies to intervene and lessen the negative consequences of stressful events that occur early in children’s lives,” Dr Thomas concludes.

Read the full paper
‘The effect of parental divorce on the health of adult children’
by Jason R. Thomas and Robin S. Hognas, is published in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies: International Journal

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