MADISON — Divorce is a drag on the academic and emotional development of young children, but only once the breakup is under way, according to a study of elementary school students and their families.
"Children of divorce experience setbacks in math test scores and show problems with interpersonal skills and internalizing behavior during the divorce period," says Hyun Sik Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They are more prone to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and sadness."
Kim's work, published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, makes use of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study describing more than 3,500 U.S. elementary school students who entered kindergarten in 1998. The study, which also made subjects of parents while checking in periodically on the children, gave Kim the opportunity to track the families through divorce — as well as through periods before and after the divorce.
While the children fell behind their peers in math and certain psychological measures during the period that included the divorce, Kim was surprised to see those students showing no issues in the time period preceding the divorce.
"I expected that there would be conflict between the parents leading up to their divorce, and that that would be troublesome for their child," Kim says. "But I failed to find a significant effect in the pre-divorce period."
The results add nuance to the long-held assumption that divorce is harmful to children all the way through the process.
"There is also some thinking that children are resilient and that they would learn how to cope with the situation at some point," Kim says.
To a certain extent, the detrimental effect of the divorce period fades, but not to the point that Kim would call it resiliency.
"After the divorce, students return to the same growth rate as their counterparts," he says. "But they remain behind their peers from intact families."
Why divorce would be an anchor on elementary school students is not hard to figure. Stressful new experiences associated with the divorce process include a confusingly adversarial relationship between mom and dad, shuttling between homes, the emotional effect the breakup has on parents and more.
But why there wouldn't be a corresponding effect on children before parents decide to divorce is a trickier question.
"The results here support the idea that not all divorces are plagued by harmful parental conflict in the pre-divorce period," Kim says.
Once the effects of a divorce do begin to erode a child's progress, they do their work on more vulnerable developing skills. Mathematics, in which new concepts often build on recently learned material, is seen as more susceptible to external issues than reading — a subject in which children of divorce showed no detrimental effects.
Similarly, children of divorce maintain their more robust positive externalizing behaviors — making friends, resolving conflict without fighting and resisting disruption of quiet times — while losing their grip on more fragile internal emotional aspects.
The study may be useful to parents and educators, though Kim expected that differing school philosophies and variations from child to child may inform different interpretations.
"If a teacher is aware of a student experiencing a divorce situation, it may be in the student's interest that the teachers intervene by adjusting as early as possible to prevent that student from falling behind," Kim says. "Because if that student falls behind, he or she is unlikely to recover even after the divorce."