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Effect of timing of parental divorce on the vulnerability of children to depression in young adulthood.

Parental divorce is a stressful experience for children at any age and most children exhibit short-term developmental disruptions, emotional distress, and behavior problems. The age at the time of parental divorce has been found to affect the child's short-term reactions to the separation (Hetherington, 1981; Richards & Dyson, 1982; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989).

The impact of a child's age and developmental phase at the time of divorce on later adaptation has received less attention than the impact on short-term reactions. Most studies have been designed to explore the impact on adolescents' adaptation (Hetherington, 1972; Kalter & Rembar, 1981; Saucier & Ambert, 1992). It has been shown that during the transitional phase of adolescence, problems caused by previous family stress may be revealed. This delayed effect has been reported by Wallerstein & Corbin (1989), who showed that girls who initially adapted well, developed feelings of anxiety during adolescence in relationships with men.

Wallerstein and her coworkers (1987) emphasized the importance of love relationships, working life, and young adults' own parenthood in assessing long-term adverse reactions associated with the timing of parental divorce. Frost & Pakiz (1990) have suggested that many adversities associated with parental divorce tend to diminish over time. In their follow-up study they found more antisocial behavior among adolescent boys from recently disrupted homes. This finding is supported by studies on the outcome of antisocial behavior, including heavy alcohol consumption and truancy, and criminality among adolescent boys (Mednick, Baker & Carothers, 1990; Saucier & Ambert, 1992). However, when sexual development was chosen as a measure of outcome in girls, early separation from father was shown to have more adverse effects (Hetherington, 1972). Feelings of anger along with aggressive behavior were more common among adolescent girls who had experienced parental divorce in the Oedipal phase than among younger and older girls and also among boys in general (Kalter & Rembar, 1981).

According to Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989) sadness and depression were common symptoms in young adults who experienced parental divorce in latency. They found that girls who had experienced parental divorce at the age of 6 to 13 years were less well adapted than the younger or older group. In the 6- to 8-year-old group, 40% were doing well, and in the 9 to 13 group, less than one-third were doing well. Depression was common among those who were doing poorly, both at the 5- and 10-year follow-up. Suicide attempts during adolescence were common in this age group (Wallerstein, 1987). The boys' internal functioning in the 9 to 13 group was poor more often than among girls. Half of the boys were characterized as unhappy about current relationships and concerned about the future. Their internal functioning was characterized by a profound unhappiness about current relationships and concerns about the future (Wallerstein, 1987). Thus, earlier studies suggest that the nature of problems associated with earlier parental divorce may be dependent upon the child's developmental stage at the time. In this population, both males and females from divorced families showed more signs of psychosomatic symptoms at the age of 16 (Aro & Rantanen, 1992). They were depressive at the age of 22 compared to young people from nondivorced families (Aro & Palosaari, 1992). Further, the life trajectories of these young people differed from each other in many respects.

The present study focused first on the possible effects of timing of parental divorce on the child's later well-being, behavior, and adaptation in adolescence and in young adulthood, and on the prevalence of depression in young adulthood. The second major issue was whether divorce affects mechanisms or processes which are of importance in mediating the impact of childhood experiences which may result in nonconformity in young adulthood.


The study population included all 9th-grade students attending secondary school in the spring of 1983 in a Finnish city. Of these, 2,194 students (96.7%) participated in the first phase of the study; mean age was 15.9 years (SD = 0.3 years). The students completed questionnaires in classrooms during school hours. In the follow-up, questionnaires were mailed to the same study cohort in the spring of 1989 when they were about 22 years old. They included 2,139 persons (97%), and the response rate was 77.4% (N = 1,656).

A total of 24 percent of the students (girls n = 194, boys n = 143) had experienced parental divorce before the first phase of the study. Children who had experienced parental death before the age of 16 were excluded. Those who had experienced parental divorce were divided into three groups: divorce before school age (under 7 years), in latency (7-12 years), and in adolescence (13-16 years). These age limits were assumed to mark important developmental turning points--school starts in Finland at the age of 7 and puberty on average at the age of 13.

The questionnaires included a checklist of symptoms, age-appropriate versions of questions about personal characteristics, behavior, education, family background, personal relationships, life situation, life events, and social support (for details, see Aro, 1988). A Finnish modification for population studies of the short 13-item Beck's Depression Inventory was used as a screening instrument for depression (Mattlar et al., 1987; Beck, Rial, & Rickels, 1974). It is otherwise identical with the 13-item Beck's Depression Inventory, except that it includes introductory questions and an additional positive choice of answer for each item. S-BDI score five was used as a cut-off point. The additional positive choices do not affect the scoring of depression.

Comparison of the participants and nonparticipants indicated that the latter were more often males. Poor school performance was also more frequent among nonparticipants. No significant differences were found in parental divorce, parental socioeconomic status, or in the symptom scores at the age of 16. The preliminary statistical description was based on cross-tabulations, and loglinear modeling was used as a multivariate technique.


In the study population about one percent experienced parental divorce every year. In the group whose parents had divorced before school age (females n = 79, males n = 55) the majority (80%) had experienced divorce at the age of three to six. In the latency group (females n = 74, males n = 55) the frequency distribution was more or less even throughout the period, and in the adolescent group (females n = 39, males n = 32) it declined with age. Persons in different time-of-divorce groups did not differ from each other in terms of socioeconomic background.

Among males at the age of 22, depression was significantly more prevalent (24%) among those who had experienced parental divorce in latency as compared with those who had experienced it before school age or in adolescence. The prevalence in the two latter groups was very close to that of males from nondivorced families (7.8%). Among females, the time of parental divorce was not associated with the prevalence of depression in young adulthood. Depression was significantly more common in all groups than among females from nondivorced families (11.5%). Further, heavy drinking among men in the latency group was found to be significantly more common (59% vs. 49% in the group under school age, and 31% in the adolescent group, p = 0.04).

Other group differences in time of leaving home, marital status, and employment status were minimal in both genders. No group differences were found in psychosomatic symptoms, self-esteem, or interpersonal problems.

There was no evidence of adaptation differences in adolescence; only minor differences were observed in psychosomatic symptoms and in self-esteem among girls. At the age of 16, girls tended to have fewer symptoms and higher self-esteem if they were older at the time of separation. Further, school performance, heavy alcohol consumption, and dating behavior did not differ significantly by the time of parental divorce.

Attempting to find an explanation for the increased prevalence of depression among latency-aged boys, school performance, alcohol consumption, and interpersonal problems in adolescence were examined. The inclusion of these factors in the model was supported by earlier research on the impact of parental divorce and by preliminary analyses. Earlier results indicated that school performance declines for some time after parental divorce (Bisnaire, Firestone, & Rynard, 1990; Wallerstein, 1987). Good school performance was also assumed to be protective against psychopathology because it may reduce the impact of the risk and negative life-chain reactions, or open new opportunities (Rutter, 1987). Heavy alcohol consumption by adolescents is often associated with developmental risk, and recent theories on the etiology and pathology of depression attach particular importance to impaired and unsatisfactory interrelationships (Karasy, 1990).

In the loglinear model, heavy alcohol consumption was associated with an increase in interpersonal problems, but not directly with timing of divorce or with later depression. Boys who drank heavily also had frequent problems in their relationships. Poor school performance did not explain high prevalence of depression among latency-aged boys in this model.

The essential message of the model was the association among interpersonal problems, depression, and timing of divorce. Interpersonal problems in adolescence were a significant indicator of risk for later depression in the group whose parents had divorced when the boys were in latency. If the divorce occurred before school age or in adolescence, interpersonal problems in adolescence did not indicate a risk of later depression.
Table 1. a) Hierarchial loglinear model of the association of timing of
parental divorce (T) and depression in young adulthood (D) with factors heavy
alcohol consumption (A), interpersonal problems (P) and school performance
(S) among boys. Difference due to deleting the terms.

b) Collapsed table of the association TDP among boys



 [G.sup.2] df p

AP 9.58 1 0.002
TDP 8.77 4 0.063

the model is A*P, T*D*P, T*S*A; df=21, [G.sup.2]=15.89, p=0.776



Timing of Interpersonal Depression Total
divorce/ problems no yes
age of child
year (%) n (%) n (%) n

- 1973 no 86.7 (26) 13.3 (4) 100.0 (30)
-7 yes 95.5 (21) 7.5 (1) 100.0 (21)
 Total 90.6 (47) 9.4 (5) 100.0 (52)

1974-79 no 90.0 (27) 11.5 (3) 100.0 (30)
-7-12 yes 62.5 (14) 39.1 (9) 100.0 (23)
 Total 77.8 (41) 22.2 (12) 100.0 (53)

1980-83 no 89.5 (15) 11.7 (2) 100.0 (17)
-13-16 yes 100.0 (12) 0.0 (0) 100.0 (12)
 Total 93.5 (27) 6.5 (2) 100.0 (29)
Table 2. Risks of being depressive in adulthood by timing of divorce among
males if one had interpersonal problems at age of 16 compared with having no

Parental divorce OR CI 90 %

Before school age 0.3 0.045 - 1.887
In latency 5.8 1.7 - 19.6
In adolescence 0.6 0.072 - 4.964


This study used a representative sample of mainly urban young people from all social classes in Finnish society. Although we assume on the basis of earlier research that psychological problems are more prevalent among dropouts (Cox, Rutter, Yule, & Quinton, 1977), the high response rate enhances the generalizability of the results.

The age categories were based on differences in development and social relations between groups. However, the forming of groups by age at the time of divorce is somewhat arbitrary; the divorce process usually takes years and the peak of a crisis does not necessarily occur at the time of divorce. Results across studies may also vary depending on the kind of outcome measure or time of evaluation chosen. The self-report measure used in this study for screening depression does not meet the DSM-III-R criteria of depression, and does not necessarily refer to depression of clinical severity.

A broader context is needed to assess the importance of the findings. Information about developmental turning points and interpersonal relationships and behavior is of central importance in understanding life processes. Evaluations during the transition stages of adolescence and young adulthood are of great interest in this respect.

Wallerstein and her colleagues (1989) found that depression is a common symptom among young adults who had experienced parental divorce in latency years. This is supported by the present findings for males. Compared with the other results which showed at most only minor differences related to the timing of divorce, this was a significant finding; at the transitional time of young adulthood, these boys were more vulnerable to depression than were their peers. However, as this was a post-hoc finding and the only indicator of differences related to the timing of divorce, it needs to be confirmed by other studies. Among females the timing of parental divorce was not associated with later well-being.

One possible explanation for the differences in prevalence of depression may lie in psychological development and/or in the current phase of the family life cycle in families with latency-aged boys. The role of interpersonal problems as a mediating factor is consistent with recent theoretical views related to depression. Deficiencies in social problem-solving ability, in learning social skills, and nonreciprocal expectations from significant others and unsuccessful role transition appear to be connected with depression (Klerman et al., 1984; Marx & Schulze, 1991). At about age eight, self-esteem is thought to change from physical to more psychological, from unstable and situational to more stable (Cicchetti & Schneider-Rosen, 1986). Children also begin to compare themselves with others instead of evaluating themselves in absolute terms. The stress in latency may disturb psychological development in these respects (Camara & Resnick, 1989). Difficulties in leaving home and starting school may continue as difficulties in interpersonal relationships at age 16 and as depression in young adulthood. On the other hand, it is possible that the life trajectory of those who experience parental divorce in latency differs from that of other groups. The probability of remarriage, career prospects, and financial situations vary between families with children of different ages.

Latency-aged children may be more involved in parental disputes and more confused about the issues than are children of other ages (Johnston, Campbell, & Mayes, 1985). Compared with boys whose parents divorced in early childhood, the latency-aged boys may also have had a longer exposure to family discord and less cognitive and coping abilities than older children. If this is true, it might help to explain sex differences. Boys have been shown to be more vulnerable than girls to family discord (Rutter, 1971). With regard to our other findings, the minor differences observed in behavior, adaptation, and life situation in adolescence and adulthood suggest that the timing of divorce has a limited effect on later well-being. The differences in well-being of young people from nondivorced and divorced families (Aro & Palosaari, 1992) must be explained by factors other than the timing of divorce. In addition to the stress experienced during the divorce process, other factors are probably of greater importance in the long-term impact of divorce, such as long-standing changes in life trajectories. However, the findings that resulted from the present approach indicate the need for further research on the impact of parental divorce on latency-aged boys.


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Author:Palosaari, Ulla; Aro, Hillevi
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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