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Health & Parenting

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Is Divorce Always Bad for the Kids?

Study Shows Children Whose Parents Eventually Divorce Have Social Problems Before Breakup
WebMD Health News

Battling parents who stay together for the sake of the children may be doing their kids more harm than good.

That is the finding from a Canadian study, which was one of the first to measure the mental health of children both before and after divorce.

Children living in very dysfunctional families actually exhibited higher levels of antisocial behavior before their parents divorced than afterwards. The more dysfunctional the family was prior to divorce, the greater the children's behavioral improvement following the event.

Kids whose parents eventually divorced also displayed higher levels of anxiety and depression before the breakup, compared with children whose parents did not divorce.

Researcher Lisa Strohschein, PhD, tells WebMD that the presumption that divorce is always bad ignores the negative impact of living in an unhappy, conflicted family.

"Perhaps we should pay more attention to what happens to kids in the period leading up to parental divorce rather than directing all our efforts to helping children after the event occurs," she says.

Dysfunction, Depression, and Divorce

In Canada, roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. Roughly 20 million American children live with only one parent, according to government figures.

Most previous studies examining the impact of divorce on children's mental health have compared children of divorce to those who live with both biological parents. But few have looked at the family situation before divorce as it related to children's mental health.

Using data from an ongoing child health registry in Canada, Strohschein followed roughly 2,900 children for four years. The children were on average about 5.5 years old, and were living in a household with both biological parents when they entered the study. The divorces occurred between 1994 and 1998.

Mental Health Problems Before Divorce

Strohschein found that mental health differences between children whose parents broke up and children whose parents remained married existed long before the divorce took place.

Compared with parents who remained married, parents who divorced tended to be younger during the initial interview and they reported higher levels of family dysfunction, depression, and, not surprisingly, lower levels of marital satisfaction.

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