Parental separation and adult psychological distress – why does this association exist and how has it changed over time?

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Opinion

Divorces have risen rapidly since the end of the Second World War in Great Britain, particularly in the early 1970s following the implementation of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. As a result there has been a large increase in the number of children with separated parents and a growing concern about how separation may affect children and whether this may have long-term implications for their wellbeing. Previous research has shown that parental separation occurring during childhood is associated with increased reporting of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression) in adulthood.

Why is parental separation associated with increased reporting of psychological distress in adulthood for some children? How has this changed over time?

These are just a couple of the questions I set out to answer in my PhD (there were many more!) This involved a cross-cohort comparison using data from three of the British birth cohorts involved in CLOSER: the 1946 National Survey for Health and Development, the 1958 National Child Development Study and the 1970 British Cohort Study. These cohorts are great to compare as they largely have comparable measures, are broadly representative of the population of similar ages who have grown up in Great Britain, and were initiated 12 years apart allowing us to investigate how life has changed.

I was hoping to find that the association between parental separation and adult psychological distress would have reduced over time thinking that as divorce has become more common it would be less stigmatising for the children involved, that service provision would have both improved and increased, and that there would perhaps be greater awareness of maintaining contact between both parents and children following separation. However there was no evidence to suggest that this was the case and parental separation was equally associated with psychological distress across all three cohorts. This had previously been confirmed by others comparing these same cohorts but I aimed to make some methodological improvements on that previous work (e.g. accounting for missing data). This finding is somewhat alarming because the proportion of children who experienced parental separation doubled between each study – 5.7% of those born in 1946, 9.1% of those born in 1958 and 20.3% of those born in 1970 experienced this. This therefore suggests that more people may have been adversely affected by parental divorce with respect to their psychological health.

Why is parental separation associated with psychological distress? Previous research suggests that two groups of factors may be involved. The first group I term ‘material’ factors, involving material disadvantage during adolescence and adulthood, and educational attainment as being a way in which material disadvantage in transmitted across the life course. The second group I term ‘relational’ factors, involving the quality of parent-child and peer relationships and adult partnership status. I investigated these two groups of factors to see whether they could explain why parental separation was associated with psychological distress and how they interacted across the life course.

I found that those who experienced parental separation were less likely to do well in education, and were more likely to report poor quality parent-child relations, experience the breakdown of their own adult partnerships, live in social housing and have a low-skilled job in adulthood. The ‘material’ factors seemed to be particularly important, especially educational attainment. Supporting children through education may be one way to enhance the life chances of children from separated families. However ‘material’ and ‘relational’ factors did not fully explain the association, suggesting that other factors may be involved. Many of these pathways had not changed over time, and one had even become worse: the association between parental separation and adolescent material disadvantage. This suggests that children who experienced separation became more disadvantaged in comparison with those who grew up with both parents.

Overall my findings suggest that parental separation is associated with the reporting of psychological distress, mainly through the ‘material’ and ‘relational’ pathways I investigated and the way in which these interacted across the life course.

The experience of doing a PhD on cross-cohort comparisons was challenging both theoretically and methodologically, but at the same time incredibly rewarding. In fact it led to a job doing further cross-cohort comparative research using the same birth cohorts and the skills that I gained through my PhD have been invaluable for this.

Rebecca Lacey is a research associate at the International Centre for Life Course Studies (ICLS), Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, University College London.

Publication in press: Lacey, R., Bartley, M,. Pikhart, H., Stafford, M., Cable, N. and Coleman, L. (in press) Parental separation and adult psychological distress: evidence for the ‘reduced effect’ hypothesis? Longitudinal and Life Course Studies