Parental separation and the mental health of young people
Approximately one in four Australian children will experience parental divorce or separation prior to age 18 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010). Such a time is characterised by change and instability for all members of the family. Research has demonstrated that for children, parental separation is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. In studies dating back to the 1950s, children who experienced parental divorce have been found to fare worse on a range of wellbeing outcomes including social relations, parental relationship quality, conduct problems, and academic achievement (see meta-analyses Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991). In more recent research, children who have experienced parental divorce showed increased levels of emotional problems (e.g. seems unhappy or worried), problems with peers (e.g. playing alone or being bullied by other children), and hyperactivity (Pronzato & Aassve, 2019).
Despite evidence of negative outcomes following parental divorce, studies have also revealed that outcomes for children and young people can differ; not all will experience mental health problems, and for those that do, increases in symptoms can be temporary or relatively small in effect (e.g., Kessler et al., 2010; Ruschena, Prior, Sanson, & Smart, 2005).
The current study
The researchers investigated the characteristics, traits and qualities of young people (at age 13-18 years) and their families that might account for differences in mental health outcomes (i.e. at age 19-20 years) following parental separation in childhood. In particular, the researchers were interested in exploring young people’s risk for depression in emerging adulthood and the extent to which each young person’s unique personality, relationships with parents and friends, and family economic situation might account for differences in depression risk.
Who participated and what were the findings?
Participants were 449 young people who had experienced parental divorce or separation anytime from age 0-18 years. The majority of participants (approximately 44%) had experienced parental divorce during primary school (i.e. age 5-11 years). Around 19% had experienced parental divorce during pre-school (i.e. age 0-4 years) and around 37% during secondary school (i.e. 12-18 years).
Key findings included:
- Most adolescents (56%) who had experienced parental separation prior to the age of 18 were well-adjusted and showed low risk of depressive symptoms at emerging adulthood.
- A third of adolescents (35%) were at an increased risk of experiencing moderately severe depressive symptoms (e.g. low mood, hopelessness, lack of initiative and motivation) during emerging adulthood.
- A minority group (9%) did not appear to be at risk for depression, but demonstrated higher rates of conduct problems, aggression and antisocial behaviour.
While all participants had experienced parental divorce or separation sometime between age 0-18 years, they differed on a range of environmental, interpersonal and individual factors during adolescence. The common factors amongst adolescents who were at risk of moderately severe depressive symptoms and antisocial behaviour in emerging adulthood included:
- higher levels of conflict between parents
- certain personality traits (e.g. negative emotional reactivity, shyness)
- poorer social skills
- lower attachment to peers
- higher levels of anxiety, conduct, and attention problems
- higher levels of aggression
- affiliation with deviant peers; and
- decreased parental warmth and supervision.
Unexpectedly, factors commonly considered important in the context of parental separation, such as the age of the young person at the time of parental separation and the family’s socio-economic status, did not significantly influence the risk of depression. In other words, how old a young person was when their parents divorced (pre-school, primary school or secondary school-aged), or where their family sat on the socio-economic ladder, did not influence their risk of developing depression in emerging adulthood.
Findings from this longitudinal cohort study suggest that parental divorce or separation prior to age 18 is associated with different depression outcomes in emerging adulthood. For professionals and services working with young people and families, this study acts as a reminder to avoid assumptions that all young people who experience parental separation will be at an increased risk for mental health problems such as depression.
This study also highlights factors that may increase the likelihood of a young person going on to experience depressive symptoms or antisocial behaviour following parental separation during childhood (e.g. increased levels of conflict between parents, decreased parental warmth, decreased parental supervision, negative emotional reactivity and fearful personality traits, and poor social skills). Increased awareness of these factors to identify adolescents at greatest risk, and to develop intervention strategies designed to support young people during a time of family change.
Future research into the potential impact of the environmental, interpersonal and individual factors surrounding parental separation on mental health outcomes in younger age groups (i.e. children aged 0–12 years) could help to determine whether similar patterns exist and improve the mental health outcomes for infants and younger children.