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The impact of divorce on adult children

Is divorce a contributing factor to homelessness? Photo Ted McGrath/Flickr

Is divorce a contributing factor to homelessness? Photo Ted McGrath/Flickr

I have posted two articles already on a 2001 report on the impact of divorce on children written by Rebecca O’Neill. In the previous articles I looked at how divorce negatively affects children and teens. In this post, I want to look at how divorce affects children as they become adults.

At the time she wrote the report, Rebecca worked for the Institute for the Study of Civil Society based in London, England. In her paper, entitled Experiments in living: the Fatherless family, she compiled the statistics of many studies that analyzed the impact of absent fathers on children.

While many of these studies looked at the consequence of divorce on children others simply researched the fallout of mothers raising children on their own — some being unwed mothers. Since divorce usually ends up with a mother raising a family alone, the consequences are often the same in both cases.

In this last in my three-part series I look at how divorce negatively affects children once they become adults. In many instances the researchers tried to rule out other contributing factors to narrow in on the impact of divorce.

Increased employment difficulties

The National Childhood Development Study discovered that by 33 years of age, children of divorced or broken homes are half as likely to have qualifications for work than those from intact families (20% compared to just 11%). Though other factors — such as financial and behavioral problems associated with divorce — contributed to the lack of qualifications, once these were factored out, it showed divorce of the parents significantly contributed to the problem.

O’Neill said:

“parental divorce during childhood also seems to have an impact in some areas which is not fully explained by those types of childhood problems. For example, after controlling for financial hardship, behavioral problems, social class and educational tests during childhood, women whose parents divorced were still 11% more likely to have no qualifications.”

[The legacy of parental divorce: social, economic and family experiences in adulthood by K. Kiernan: Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics, September 1997]

Men aged 33 from divorced families are two times more likely to be unemployed — 14% compared to just 7% for men from intact families.  Again even when other elements commonly associated with divorce such as poverty and behavioral issues are accounted for, men from broken homes are 40% more likely to not be employed. [The legacy of parental divorce: social, economic and family experiences in adulthood by K. Kiernan: Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, September 1997]

Problems with the law

Review 2001/2002: Building on Success, Youth Justice Board” reported that though only 20% of dependent British children were in single parent families, they nevertheless accounted for “70% of young offenders.”  [Review 2001/2002: Building on success, Youth Justice Board: The Stationery Office, London, July 2002]

A similar study in the US, showed that by their early 30s, boys from single parent families are twice as likely to be incarcerated as boys living with both biological parents. [Father absence and youth incarceration by C. Harper and S. McLanahan — paper presented to American Sociological Association, San Francisco]

Emotional problems

Upwards of 25% of U.S. children from divorced parents will suffer prolonged emotional and behavioral problems compared to just 10% from non-divorced families. These problems typically show up when they are adults. [For better or worse: Divorce reconsidered by M. Hetherington: W.W. Norton, New York, 2002]

Increased alcohol consumption

Data from National Childhood Development Study revealed that adults who suffered through divorce as children showed a stronger inclination to be a “heavy and/or problem drinker.” Curiously, the link between divorce and drinking was weak at age 23 but by age 33 it was classified as “strong.” Note: when other contributing factors were considered, it had little impact on the final results.  [The relationship between parental separation in childhood and problem drinking in adulthood by S. Hope, C. Power and B. Rodgers: Addiction 1993]

Swedish study shows increased health risk

A study from Sweden showed the impact that country’s liberal views on sex and morality were having on its society. Based on this study — over a 16-year time frame and with poverty factored out — being from a single-parent family increased an adult’s chances of:

  • Dying by 30%;
  • Having circulatory difficulties by 70%;
  • Showing indications of mental problems by 56%; and
  • Rating their health as poor by 26%.

[The impact of childhood living conditions on illness and mortality in adulthood by O. Lundbert, Social Science and Medicine, 1993]

The cycle continues

But perhaps just as disturbing as all of this being from a broken home increased a person’s likelihood that they would divorce as well (note this number includes breakdown of both married and co-habiting adults). For men it nearly doubled (1.9 times) and for women 1.5 times. [The legacy of parental divorce: social, economic and family experiences in adulthood by K. Kiernan, September 1997]


More in this series:

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