Divorce Hits Youngest Kids the Hardest, Study Finds

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Divorce may be worse for parent-child bonding if parents split when kids are young, new research suggests.

But the study, detailed in a forthcoming issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also shows that any anxiety or resentment these kids harbor toward divorced parents as adults doesn't seem to spill over into their romantic relationships. Moreover, the overall effect of divorce timing on parent-child relationships was fairly small.

The findings reinforce the notion that the youngest years are a critical time period for forming attachments, and suggest parents' divorce early in a child's life can have long-lasting consequences for their bond with parents — even if they don't remember the divorce itself. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]

Attachment theory

Beginning in the 1960s, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth began investigating the way children bonded to their primary caregivers (usually moms). Follow-up studies suggested children who were securely attached to their caregivers tended to do better later in life than those who were anxious or avoidant of their parents. (When parents are unavailable, for instance, their kids may learn avoidant behaviors, like failing to express their needs and becoming self-reliant.) Other research has shown that divorce has long-lasting effects on kids.

But in most studies on parent-child attachment style, researchers ask people to recall aspects of childhood retrospectively — a notoriously unreliable technique.

R. Chris Fraley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his colleague Marie Heffernan decided to look at a more objective measure of childhood experience: divorce.

The team created an online survey on YourPersonality.net to assess people's attachment styles toward their parents and other loved ones. Survey participants also indicated whether and when their parents divorced.

The team then analyzed the responses of 7,335 people, most of whom were women and more than one-third of whom had divorced parents.

Divorce effects

Those with divorced parents tended to be more anxious or aloof with their parents, though the overall effect was fairly small.

Interestingly, the researchers said, those whose parents divorced earlier seemed to be impacted the most. In addition, children had better relationships with the parent they lived with after the divorce (usually the mother).

"We find that children are most securely attached to the parent with whom they live, post-divorce. We do not know whether this is a causal relationship; it could very well be the case that many custody arrangements are driven, in part, by the existing quality of the relationship between parents and children," Fraley wrote in an email.

Resilient love

Overall, though, people were pretty resilient.

"The hopeful thing in the research is that people who experienced divorce at a young age appear to be no worse off in their romantic relationships," said Howard Steele, a psychology professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. 

Still, the findings bolster the notion that early childhood is a critical time period for forming attachments.

"Parents begin laying the foundation for the relationship they will have with their children the day their children are born, if not sooner," Fraley wrote. "This does not mean that early experiences determine our future. But some of our research indicates that the residue of experiences that take place early on might be more substantial than experiences that take place later."

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.