Children of divorce have poorer math and interpersonal social skills than their peers, and they battle anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and sadness, according to new research published Thursday in the American Sociological Review.
They have trouble forming and maintaining friendships, expressing their feelings in positive ways, showing sensitivity to others’ feelings, comforting other children and getting along with people who are different, according to Hyun Sik Kim, the study’s author and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The problems don’t resolve once the divorce is complete, but neither do they intensify. “Children of divorce don’t appear to catch up with their peers,” says Kim.
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Although Kim anticipated finding evidence that children struggle in the “pre-divorce period,” before parents initiate divorce proceedings, the study found otherwise. Rather than reacting to the perceived conflict that leads to moms and dads filing for divorce, children start struggling once the divorce is underway.
Analyzing data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class 1998 to 1999, Kim looked at 3,585 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade. He zeroed in on the 142 children whose parents split up between first and third grade.
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Kim observed the children four times — in the spring of kindergarten, first grade, third grade and fifth grade — and found that children of divorce trailed other children by about 12% in terms of their progress on standardized math tests, when other factors were not considered.
He found no corresponding lag in reading scores. That might be because math skills rely on cumulative knowledge more than reading skills do. “If children of divorce do not understand one thing, it may be hard to catch up,” says Kim. “Reading skills are not as sensitive to external influences.”
That children whose family structure is falling apart are more prone to experiencing social distress is not surprising. Stressed-out parents can create stressed-out kids, and arguments over custody and worries about acclimating to two homes instead of one can cause children to turn inward. “They may not want to meet other students and may have problems expressing their own feelings,” says Kim.
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For this reason, it’s important for parents to talk with their kids about how divorce will change things. “Even though my study does not investigate this, it’s important to speak openly about why they have decided to divorce,” says Kim. “If they understand, children may be able to concentrate better and form friendships.”