This study of nearly 10,000 adolescents is the first to look at the children of divorce at four time points: about 3 years and 1 year before divorce and 1 year and 3 years after divorce.
The results suggest children don't respond uniformly to the ending of their parents' marriage, said Yongmin Sun, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus.
"The effects of divorce take two time paths," Sun said. "The damage in children's psychological well-being is already observable three years prior to divorce, but gets worse as the divorce approaches. Yet, as the event of divorce recedes, the detrimental effect becomes smaller, indicating a recovery in children's psychological well-being after the divorce. Test scores, however, continue to decline."
Sun conducted the study with Yuanzhang Li of the Allied Technology Group, Inc. Their results appear in the May issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Data for this study came from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which surveyed thousands of students beginning in 8th grade in 1988. This study involved 9,542 students who were surveyed in 1988, 1990, and 1992.
The researchers examined how children fared on academic tests and in psychological well-being. They were given tests in math, science, reading, and social studies. Participants also completed measures of psychological well-being that were designed to test their self-esteem and how much control they felt they had over their own lives.
In a previous study using the same data set, Sun examined how children fared at only two time points: about one year before and one year after divorce. In that study, the results suggested that children had about the same levels of psychological difficulty shortly before and after their parents' break-up.
However, this study shows that the level of psychological problems is even lower three years before divorce and shows a downward trend three years after divorce.
"By assessing children's well-being at four time points, we are able to depict a more complete picture of how parental divorce affects children as a continuous process," Sun said. "For example, with data collected at four time points, we could tell that children's psychological problems appear to be centered around the time of the divorce. The good news is that the children seem to recover."
However, the news wasn't as good concerning their academic progress. Students of divorce had lower tests scores than did children from intact families. In addition, students of divorced parents had declining test scores throughout the length of the study. For example, students of divorced parents showed science test scores that averaged 1.13 points lower than other students at the first time point of the study. The difference in science test scores increased by approximately 0.4 points at each of the following three time points in the study.
Why do test scores continue to suffer, even as psychological well-being recovers?
Sun and Li noted that test performance itself is cumulative, with success in later periods dependent on earlier success. In other words, children may fall behind academically and not be able to catch up. In addition, children of divorce and their teachers may see the early academic problems as a sign of low academic ability. That may lead to low motivation and lack of confidence, which eventually leads to continuous poor performance.
The study also examined the role of family resources in the divorce. The researchers looked at financial resources and the social environment - a variety of measures that examined how much parents interacted and were involved in their children's lives.
These results showed that measures of the social environment - such as how often parents and children talked to each other - declined before the divorce and were still low a year afterwards. However, by three years after the divorce, these social resources were back up to normal. However, family economic hardship continued to the end of the study period.
In addition, while several previous studies concluded that divorce affects boys more than girls, Sun said these new results suggest girls are equally vulnerable. One reason may be that most previous studies have focused on younger children, while this study involved children with an average age of 16 at the time of the divorce.
Sun said the findings of the study show that children may have problems adjusting to their parents' impending break-up, the actual divorce, and the aftermath.
"Counseling and help should be provided to children both before and after parental divorce in order to minimize the negative effects," he said.