Effect of Timing of Parental Divorce on the Vulnerability of Children to Depression in Young Adulthood

Article excerpt

Parental divorce is a stressful experience for children at any age and most children exhibit short-term developmental disruptions, emotional distress, and behavior problems. The age at the time of parental divorce has been found to affect the child's short-term reactions to the separation (Hetherington, 1981; Richards & Dyson, 1982; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989).

The impact of a child's age and developmental phase at the time of divorce on later adaptation has received less attention than the impact on short-term reactions. Most studies have been designed to explore the impact on adolescents' adaptation (Hetherington, 1972; Kalter & Rembar, 1981; Saucier & Ambert, 1992). It has been shown that during the transitional phase of adolescence, problems caused by previous family stress may be revealed. This delayed effect has been reported by Wallerstein & Corbin (1989), who showed that girls who initially adapted well, developed feelings of anxiety during adolescence in relationships with men.

Wallerstein and her coworkers (1987) emphasized the importance of love relationships, working life, and young adults' own parenthood in assessing long-term adverse reactions associated with the timing of parental divorce. Frost & Pakiz (1990) have suggested that many adversities associated with parental divorce tend to diminish over time. In their follow-up study they found more antisocial behavior among adolescent boys from recently disrupted homes. This finding is supported by studies on the outcome of antisocial behavior, including heavy alcohol consumption and truancy, and criminality among adolescent boys (Mednick, Baker & Carothers, 1990; Saucier & Ambert, 1992). However, when sexual development was chosen as a measure of outcome in girls, early separation from father was shown to have more adverse effects (Hetherington, 1972). Feelings of anger along with aggressive behavior were more common among adolescent girls who had experienced parental divorce in the Oedipal phase than among younger and older girls and also among boys in general (Kalter & Rembar, 1981).

According to Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989) sadness and depression were common symptoms in young adults who experienced parental divorce in latency. They found that girls who had experienced parental divorce at the age of 6 to 13 years were less well adapted than the younger or older group. In the 6- to 8-year-old group, 40% were doing well, and in the 9 to 13 group, less than one-third were doing well. Depression was common among those who were doing poorly, both at the 5- and 10-year follow-up. Suicide attempts during adolescence were common in this age group (Wallerstein, 1987). The boys' internal functioning in the 9 to 13 group was poor more often than among girls. Half of the boys were characterized as unhappy about current relationships and concerned about the future. Their internal functioning was characterized by a profound unhappiness about current relationships and concerns about the future (Wallerstein, 1987). Thus, earlier studies suggest that the nature of problems associated with earlier parental divorce may be dependent upon the child's developmental stage at the time. In this population, both males and females from divorced families showed more signs of psychosomatic symptoms at the age of 16 (Aro & Rantanen, 1992). They were depressive at the age of 22 compared to young people from nondivorced families (Aro & Palosaari, 1992). Further, the life trajectories of these young people differed from each other in many respects.

The present study focused first on the possible effects of timing of parental divorce on the child's later well-being, behavior, and adaptation in adolescence and in young adulthood, and on the prevalence of depression in young adulthood. The second major issue was whether divorce affects mechanisms or processes which are of importance in mediating the impact of childhood experiences which may result in nonconformity in young adulthood. …