The rate of parental separation and divorce is increasing across the developed world. And as it does so, the average level of conflict decreases; that is, fewer divorces exhibit high conflict. A Swedish study showed that 75% of children born before 1919 whose parents divorced reported high conflict. For children born after 1970, the proportion reporting high conflict was 40%.
We know from much research that parental separation, on average, harms children – they experience lower well-being, less educational achievement, and lower earnings in adulthood. The mechanisms behind these effects may include the conflict of the separation itself, the way the parents behave after the separation, and increased financial hardship after separation. On the other hand, it could be that people who are prone to separation are also less effective parents. In that case, children of separated parents may fare worse than other children simply because of the quality of the parenting that they experienced.
It might be expected that as the average conflict of divorce falls, the average negative effect on children would also decrease. As more liberal divorce legislation makes separation less stressful, and as the stigma of being a child of separated parents decreases, so the wellbeing of children of separated parents might be expected to increase on average. Or as divorce grows easier, the link between separation and poor parenting would weaken.
But in fact, the link between divorce and harmful effects on children—at least when measured by the extent to which they graduate from university—has grown much stronger as the divorce rate has increased. Children born in the 1970s whose parents separated were four times more likely not to go to university than children born in the 1940s whose parents separated. And in countries where divorce rates are higher, children’s education is affected even more.
Meanwhile, for the parents it goes the other way. For them, the average impact of the separation lessens as the divorce rates go up.
The counterintuitive finding relating to children’s education was made by a team led by Professor Martin Kriedl at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. They studied the link between experiencing parents’ divorce before the age of 18 and graduating from university in 13 countries—Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Romania—and among children born in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The data came from the United Nations Generations and Gender Programme, and included information from 93,413 people.
What could explain this finding?
Other research has found that separation’s impact on children may be worse in low-conflict situations. Exiting a high-conflict situation could be a relief for a child, whilst exiting what felt like a stable family environment could create more of a long-term shock. This could explain why the impact on children gets worse on average as low-conflict separations make up a greater proportion of the total.
Support services for separating families are geared towards the parents, and children are often overlooked. This research makes the case that we should pay more attention to children in services that support separating families.
Kreidl M, Štípková M & Hubatková B (2017), Parental separation and children’s education in a comparative perspective: Does the burden disappear when separation is more common?, Demographic Research 36.3