Public Release: 

Parental divorce has minimal effect on children's ability to trust others in later life

Penn State

Children of divorce or who experience family instability are not automatically less trusting in their adult relationships than their peers from intact families, a Penn State study shows.

"As long as children of divorce have close relations with mom and dad -- despite divorce -- they probably won't grow up with a built-in resistance to intimacy, distrusting parents, girl- or boyfriends, spouses, friends and various associates," says Dr. Valarie King, assistant professor of sociology, demography and human development at Penn State. On the other hand, children who have a poor relationship with their parents are less trusting of others.

King and Dr. Alan Booth, professor of sociology and human development at Penn State, presented their research in the paper, "Family Instability and Interpersonal Trust," at the recent annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles. The researchers used data from a national longitudinal study of 646 parents and their adult offspring.

"A study based on national data showed trust in individuals in general declined between 1975 and 1994," says Booth. "Some might be inclined to link the overall decline in trust in American society with the decline of the traditional family and the escalating divorce rate since the early 1960s. However, this connection is by no means certain."

"The one long-term negative result of divorce that we found in our study is that the children will tend to grow up with a lingering mistrust of the father," King notes. Early parental divorce and family instability have an initial negative impact on offspring's trust of the mother, but this becomes less significant once the quality of the parent-child relationship is taken into account. Parental divorce at later ages (5 and older) has no impact on trust of the mother.

On the other hand, divorce has a strong adverse effect on offspring's trust of the father regardless of the child's age at which it occurs. Even if the divorced father remains on good terms with his children, their trust in him will be to some degree damaged through adulthood, according to Booth.

"Surprisingly, while early relations with parents are also basic to trusting intimates, parental divorce and family instability make no difference in this regard as long as good relations are maintained between children and parents after the divorce," says King.

In addition, the children's own positive personal experiences with marriage and adult relationships can improve the capacity for trusting intimates. Moreover, current positive relationships can minimize past negative relationship experiences such as a failed cohabitation, she adds.

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This study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Penn State's Population Research Institute. King also received support as a Brookdale National Fellow.

EDITORS: Dr. King is at 814-863-8716 or at vking@pop.psu.edu by email.

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