Children of Divorce – Suffering the Health Consequences

Ever since the beginning of the Divorce Revolution, scholars have eagerly studied the children of divorce. Do these children bounce back? Or do they suffer long-term ill consequences of their parents’ break-up? Much research has been done on the impact divorce has on children’s cognitive abilities, educational performance, emotional stability, etc. But according to a team of researchers out of the United Kingdom and Luxembourg, far fewer studies have delved into the effects of divorce on children’s physical well-being. Furthermore, say these scholars, most of those studies have been on American children. The researchers seek to remedy this gap by studying the effects of divorce on children’s body mass index (or BMI, a measure of body fat) in the United Kingdom.

The researchers begin by highlighting the need for their research. “To our knowledge,” they begin, “no study has examined the effects of parental separation on children’s physical health using longitudinal and representative data from outside the U.S. context.” This gap is important, as the studies that use cross-sectional (vs. longitudinal, representative) data “may be influenced by unobserved family characteristics that affected both the risk of separation and children’s physical development.” In addition, the authors of this new study point out that most research has treated separation as a distinct event, whereas they believe that it is more akin to a process, one that begins before the actual separation takes place. They seek thus to assess the changes in BMI over the length of this process. 

The study uses data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows the lives of a group of children born between 2000 and 2002. The first survey was completed when the children were 9 months old, and subsequent follow-ups administered at ages 3, 5, 7, 11, and 14. A range of data was collected, including such things as children’s BMI and whether or not a parental separation occurred. Unfortunately, the researchers do not distinguish between break-ups in cohabitation and break-ups in marriage, as “cohabitations in the United Kingdom have been found to be more committed and marriage-like than in the United States.” Perhaps so, but given the large body of research demonstrating significant differences between the two even in countries where cohabitation is more normalized, this grouping is unfortunate.

The data show that although there is little change in BMI in the “anticipation” period before a break-up, and lack of a “large, statistically significant” change immediately after separation, the “results suggest that the effect gradually accumulates and results in a longer-term effect of parental separation on children’s health.” The researchers elaborate, “The effect of parental separation on children’s BMI becomes increasingly important and statistically significant two to three years after separation, which could be the consequence of a cumulative penalty over time. The finding that it takes longer for the risk of overweight/obesity to show significant differences echoes the indication that continuous increases in BMI result in increases in the risk of becoming overweight obese later on.” The results are more serious for children whose parents separated before they turned six years old.

The researchers speculate as to the mechanisms through which these results might occur, including reduced economic resources, more maternal time at outside paid employment, increased time watching television, the lack of a regular bedtime, and other behaviors that have been shown to influence childhood BMI. They find that although such factors do not fully explain the change in BMI, they do change with length of separation and thus likely play some role. The authors of this study speculate that perhaps further research would demonstrate more definitely how such factors interact with separation and children’s BMI.

The authors close by emphasizing that because “separation and children’s weight gain strengthens as the time since the separation increases, efforts to prevent these children from gaining weight should start early, and soon after separation. Intervening early could help to prevent—or at least attenuate—the process that leads some children to develop unhealthy adiposity trajectories.”

If only more researchers and policymakers alike would recommend measures aimed at sustaining marriages instead of early interventions aimed at repairing the damage divorce causes. 

(Alice Goisis, Berkay Özcan, and Philippe Van Kerm, “Do Children Carry the Weight of Divorce?” Demography 56 [2019]: 785-811, doi: 10.1007/s13524-019-00784-4.)