Parental Divorce and Child Mental Health Trajectories

Article excerpt

A process-oriented approach to parental divorce locates the experience within the social and developmental context of children's lives, providing greater insight into how parental divorce produces vulnerability in some children and resiliency in others. The current study involves prospectively tracking a nationally representative sample of Canadian children of ages 4-7 and living with two biological parents at initial interview in 1994 (N = 2,819), and comparing the mental health trajectories of children whose parents remain married with those whose parents divorce by 1998. Results from growth curve models confirm that, even before marital breakup, children whose parents later divorce exhibit higher levels of anxiety/depression and antisocial behavior than children whose parents remain married. There is a further increase in child anxiety/depression but not antisocial behavior associated with the event of parental divorce itself. Controlling for predivorce parental socioeconomic and psychosocial resources fully accounts for poorer child mental health at initial interview among children whose parents later divorce, but does not explain the divorce-specific increase in anxiety/depression. Finally, a significant interaction between parental divorce and predivorce levels of family dysfunction suggests that child antisocial behavior decreases when marriages in highly dysfunctional families are dissolved.

Key Words: child outcomes, growth curve models, mental health, parental divorce.

Parental divorce is an increasingly common experience in childhood, with nearly one in two divorces in Canada involving dependent children (Ambert, 2002). These trends have lent urgency to the ongoing debate as to whether parental divorce is damaging to child mental health. Moving beyond simply asking whether divorce affects children, researchers have called for a process-oriented approach, which involves examining features in the child's life both prior to and after divorce to gain a more textured understanding of the circumstances by which parental divorce adversely affects some children more than others (Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999; Kelly & Emery, 2003).

One of the key weaknesses of early studies was the use of cross-sectional data to compare children in intact two-biological parent families with children whose parents are divorced. The comparison presented an overly pessimistic view by failing to take into account the quality of family life prior to parental divorce. In particular, there was concern that the effects of parental divorce on child mental health were spurious to the extent that both were influenced by predivorce family characteristics. Efforts to resolve this issue, by using two-wave panel studies that prospectively followed children in two-biological parent households, led to several studies showing there was a larger increase in mental health problems for children whose parents subsequently divorced than for children whose parents remained married, even when adjusted for predivorce family characteristics (Hanson, 1999; Jekielek, 1998; Morrison & Coiro, 1999; but see Cherlin et al., 1991). Studies reporting significant differences, however, narrowly defined predivorce family characteristics as marital conflict, and greater attention was drawn to the issue of whether the impact of parental divorce was contingent on the level of marital conflict prior to divorce. Despite evidence that divorce may operate as stress relief for highly conflicted families, the hypothesis has been tested just once on a nationally representative sample of children (Hanson) and never on a dataset with multiple waves. In the current study, I use the method of growth curve analysis, which allows me to distinguish effects associated with being a child of divorce from those associated with going through parental divorce, on the repeated observations of a nationally representative sample of Canadian children interviewed three times between 1994 and 1998. …