By Lori Lowe
Many people talk of the “good divorce” and imagine resilient children who go on to have strong relationships with both parents following a family breakdown. That’s not what the research shows generally happens. Instead, when children experience parental divorce, they are more likely to have insecure relationships with their parents once they grow into adults.
A comprehensive study of 7,700 individuals from divorced families by Fraley and Heffernan, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, reported that insecure parental relationships were most pronounced when the divorce occurred during early childhood. It was the first such study to determine that the timing of the divorce in the first years of a child’s life has a greater impact. It is also one of the first to demonstrate a link between the divorce and the parent/child relationship being harmed.
This research contradicts cultural assertions that children are very resilient and that they can easily get over family breakups, particularly if they are too young to really understand what is going on. On the contrary, early childhood is deemed a “sensitive period” during which the child learns how to trust and attach to others. Therefore, divorce during this sensitive period was shown to be more impactful.
Prior research has had varying results about when during childhood the most harmful effects of parental divorce occur. A 1989 study by Allison and Furstenberg found greater distress, delinquency, problem behavior, and academic difficulties in children whose parents separated between infancy and age five. A 2005 study by Strohschein suggested children aged 4 to 7 whose parents divorced were more vulnerable to mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
The more recent 2013 study by Fraley and Heffernan isolated and tested the sensitive period hypothesis which posited that, if true, the impact of parental divorce on adult attachment styles should be more pronounced if it occurred during early childhood than if it took place later in childhood. The study concluded that the data was in fact consistent with the sensitive period hypothesis. The researchers concluded that “not only is early divorce more consequential than later divorce, but it is also particularly influential when it takes place in the early years of life.”
Psychologists say some experiences, such as parental divorce, can influence our personality development more when they take place during a child’s early development. A 2006 study by Sullivan suggests one possible reason is that our nervous system is more malleable or plastic early in life, and so may be impacted to a greater degree during this time. A 2002 study by Fraley adds that early experiences help us set expectations for later experiences. So when a disruption in family relationships occurs very early, it changes the mindset and removes the secure foundation on which other relationships can be compared and built.
Adult Children of Divorce Have More Insecure Relationships with Parents
If you are a parent considering divorce, it is certainly worth noting that the action of divorce and its timing have major consequences for your child and for his or her future relationship with you and your spouse.
Researchers concluded that people who were younger when their parents divorced were more insecure in their relationships with their parents as adults than people who were older when their parents divorced. The first few years of life appear to be the most critical “sensitive period.” However, even when children were older when the divorce occurred, the parental relationships were more likely to be insecure.
Fraley and Heffernan used a large testing group of more than 12,300 participants for this study and replicated the results with a second sample of 7,300. They included people who varied in parental divorce status, age, and age at parental divorce. Participants were mostly from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada.
Custody Affects Parent/Child Relationships
Fraley and Heffernan replicated their study with a deeper analysis on which parent received custody following divorce. Unsurprisingly, the amount of time the child spends with a parent was linked with the security of the adult/child relationship as adults. People in the study were more likely to have an insecure relationship with their father if they lived with their mother. However, if they lived with their father, they were less likely to have an insecure relationship with him as an adult. And if they lived with their father, they reported more insecurity in their relationship with their mothers than with their fathers.
Adult children of divorce were more insecure with fathers than with mothers, on average. This is likely due to the fact that more mothers gain full custody. In fact, 74 percent of participants whose parents divorced reported that their mothers had primary custody, while 11 percent lived with their fathers, and the rest lived with a grandparent or other caretakers.
“These findings are valuable because they suggest that something as basic as the amount of time one spends with a parent or one’s living arrangements can have the potential to shape the quality of the attachment relationship that one has with a parent,” say researchers.
To summarize, recent research shows that divorce during the first few years of life may affect children the most, and this family breakdown is likely to result in more insecure relationships with one or both parents, with custody being a major factor in relationship security. Is this study consistent with your own personal experience, or the experiences of your friends?