Changing impacts of parental divorce

Pearl Dykstra, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Niels Schenk, Erasmus University Rotterdam

There are reasons to suspect that the negative impact of parental divorce on children’s outcomes has declined over time. One is a weaker stigma, another is that parents are better prepared for divorce, and yet another is that increasing interference by practitioners reduces harmful effects of parental divorce. Empirical studies fail to show a declining negative impact of divorce over time. We suggest that offsetting effects might be responsible. We examine two contrasting hypotheses that have the reversal of divorce risks by level of educational attainment (from a positive to a negative gradient) as their point of departure. Assuming greater selectivity, the shift in the composition of the group of divorcees from primarily most educated to primarily least educated should have increasingly negative implications because the highly educated divorce only under exceptional circumstances. An alternative hypothesis is that the highly educated are better aware of the consequences of divorce. Assuming protection by parents, the negative impact of divorce on the well-being of children should be smaller among those with well-educated parents whose marriage ended in divorce. A novel feature of our study is that we take the offspring rather than the parent perspective. Our data are from 15 waves (1994-2009) of the youth sample of the British Household Panel Study. We have reports from 3882 adolescents in 2830 two-parent households. Self-esteem is our outcome measure. The findings are based on multi-level models, where time is nested in children, and children are nested in households. Results show no support for a declining effect of divorce. The negative effect on adolescents’ self-esteem is weaker if the mother is highly educated, consistent with the protection hypothesis. We find no support for the selection hypothesis. Thus children of highly educated do more poorly after divorce than children of less well educated parents—on the contrary.

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Presented in Session 49: Separation and divorce