Study: Divorce more harmful to children’s educational development than a parent’s death

A new study exploring the educational consequences of parental death and divorce has found that divorce is worse than parental death for children.

The research, published on Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal of population sciences, demonstrated that experiencing parental death or divorce harms children’s educational attainment. The research also explored the variation between parental death and divorce across social contexts. 

Researchers Carlijn Bussemakers, Gerbert Kraaykamp and Jochem Tolsmause used data from the Generation and Gender (GGC) survey from 17 countries including France, Austria, Belgium, Russia, Sweden and Germany. The GGS provides a collection of national surveys carried out in these countries between 2002 and 2013 on topics related to family dynamics and relationships. 

Respondents’ educational attainment was measured as the number of years required to complete their highest level of education. Using this data, they found that parental divorce had a larger impact on children than parental death, with the effect of divorce being substantially larger than that of parental death. Researchers described the difference as “significant” at conventional levels. 

“All in all, the negative effects confirm our first hypothesis: Respondents who experienced a parental death or divorce attained less education than respondents who did not experience one of these events during their youth, and the difference was larger for respondents who experienced parental divorce,” researchers stated.

The study also found that the impact of parental divorce was larger for the children of higher educated parents. The educational consequences of parental death were reduced by less selective educational systems and provision for single-parent benefits, specifically for children of lower-educated parents.

Researchers said that the results of their study indicated that although parental death and divorce both harm children’s educational attainment, their impacts differ across family as well as country contexts. The consequences of divorce, researchers state, strongly depend on the resources available in a family, while the effects of parental death are mitigated by educational and welfare policies.

Researchers said that their study underscored the relevance of differentiating between specific adverse events and considering the social context to understand the consequences of adversity for children’s educational attainment.

“In this study,” researchers said, “we were able to show that children who experienced parental death or divorce attained lower levels of education, but the impact of these adverse events was not equal across social environments.

“This underscores the importance of recognizing how children’s family experiences affect their educational attainment. Moreover, our study suggests that educational system and welfare state policies can help the most disadvantaged, bereaved children, but they provide less support for other groups.”

Researchers added that it remains important to find ways to help children from various backgrounds and with various experiences during their youth.

Divorce became legal in Ireland in 1996 despite dire warnings at the time that it would be destructive to family life as we knew it. While divorce rates in Ireland remain below the EU average, there is a large amount of research from the US (where divorce rates are higher than that of the EU) that shows divorce often has a profoundly negative impact on children and teenagers. 

Some short-term effects that children of divorced parents experience, researchers say, include “a sense of vulnerability as the family disintegrates, a grief reaction to the loss of the intact family, loss of the non-custodial parent, a feeling of intense anger (at) the disruption of the family, and strong feelings of powerlessness,” according to www.ChildAdvocate.net.

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