Divorcing Parents, Psychologically Suffering Children

Parental divorce seriously hurts American children, some progressives have argued, only because the United States is politically backward compared to advanced social democracies, such as, say, Sweden. But that line of thinking loses plausibility when assessed against the results of a new study of parental divorce in that very land of the progressives’ hearts’ desires. Even in progressive Sweden, it turns out, parental divorce occasions considerable psychological distress for children.

To assess the impact of parental divorce on children, researchers at Linköping University carefully examined the psychiatric and medical histories of the 239 men and women who were 18 years old or younger when their parents filed for divorce in the district court of Linköping between July 1987 and June 1988. The data so obtained were then compared with data for a comparison group taken from a representative group of 239 peers identified through use of the Swedish national population register.

The researchers saw little when they focused on the adult well-being of those who had experienced parental divorce as children. The data indicate “no significant differences between [the parental-divorce group and the comparison group] in the number of persons seeking adult psychiatry or in the number of psychiatric consultations.”

However, the researchers see a great deal more when they look at the childhood well-being of those who experienced parental divorce. The data reveal that both men and women who had experienced parental divorce had had “significantly more” contact with psychiatric professionals as children and adolescents than had peers in the comparison group (p < 0.001 for both males and females). Among those who had experienced parental divorce, one in five had received psychiatric care as a child or adolescent, while only one in fifty in the comparison group had received such care (20.95% vs. 2.1%)! Reliance upon psychiatric care was especially common among the female children of divorced parents.

The researchers point out that “one of the most frequent child/adolescent psychiatric diagnoses was ‘Mood disorders,’” remarking that such disorders might reflect “reactions to disharmonious conditions in the family, as experience of parental divorce has been shown to be connected to emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.”

Even in progressive Sweden, the incidence of psychiatric problems among the children of divorced parents runs disturbingly high, so disturbingly high that readers of the new study may suspect shadows of these problems persist in the adult lives of these children, even if those shadows are too subtle to register on the measures the researchers use.

In any case, the particularly high incidence of such problems among the daughters of divorced parents raises new questions about feminist support for permissive divorce laws.

(Teresia Ängarne-Lindberg and Marie Wadsby, “Psychiatric and Somatic Health in Relation to Experience of Parental Divorce in Childhood,” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 58.1 [January 2012]:16–25.)