Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression

Article excerpt

We examine the association between adult depression and childhood parental divorce, and the explanations for this association, using a representative national sample of 2,592 adults interviewed by telephone in 1995. Parental divorce may disrupt the life course, with lifelong consequences for adult well-being in two ways: lowered socioeconomic status and problems in interpersonal relationships. Compared with individuals who grew up with both parents, adult children of divorce have lower levels of education, occupational status, and income, higher levels of economic hardships (both current and past), more often marry young, divorce and remarry several times, find themselves in unhappy relationships, and mistrust people in general. However they do not have lower levels of social support. These associations hold when we adjust for sex, minority status, age, parental death, and parental education. The disadvantaged socioeconomic and interpersonal statuses link parental divorce to adult depression because more education is associated with lower levels of depression and because economic hardship, early marriages, unhappy relationships and mistrust are associated with high levels of depression. There are no direct intrapsychic effects of parental divorce on adult depression. Low socioeconomic status and problems in interpersonal relationships mediate all of the association.

Key Words: childhood family structure, depression, life course, parental divorce.

Does childhood parental divorce produce longterm negative consequences for adult mental health? If it does, what mediates the effect? We look at the association between adult depression and childhood parental divorce, and the explanations for the association. Recent evidence shows an enduring negative effect of childhood parental divorce on young adults' mental health (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998), but less is known about the processes through which an event that happened in childhood could affect psychological well-being in adulthood. We develop and test the life-course disruption hypothesis. The hypothesis focuses on two links between adult mental health and the divorce of one's parents in childhood: lowered socioeconomic status and problems in interpersonal relationships. First, we propose that children of divorce receive less formal education, which in turn reduces occupational status and income and increases the likelihood of unemployment and economic hardship. Second, we propose that children of divorce experience disrupted interpersonal relationships: They tend to marry early, have unhappy marriages, divorce repeatedly, mistrust people in general, and feel little sense of social support. Lowered socioeconomic status and problems in interpersonal relationships, in turn, affect depression in adulthood.

LIFE-COURSE DISRUPTION

Lowered Socioeconomic Status Parental divorce has negative socioeconomic consequences for adult children. It interferes with educational attainment, which shapes opportunities for the rest of life. Children of divorced parents achieve relatively less education than those from intact families; they are less likely to finish high school, go to college, and finish college (Amato & Bruce, 1991; Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Coleman, 1988; Greenberg & Wolf, 1982; Keith & Finlay, 1988; McLanahan, 1985; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Shaw, 1982; Steelman & Powell, 1991; Wojtkiewicz, 1993); and the negative effects on educational attainment may be greater for girls than for boys (Powell & Parcel, 1997). Adult children of divorce have lower occupational status and earnings (Biblarz & Raftery, 1993), the result of lower educational attainment (Powell & Parcel, 1997). Because children of divorce complete less formal schooling and education shapes occupational and economic status, education may be a crucial link in the process. Problems in Interpersonal Relationships Parental divorce also has negative interpersonal consequences for adult children. …

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