Divorce is more harmful to kids’ education when parents are statistically unlikely to split, study finds

New research suggests that the effect of divorce is greatest among more advantaged children. The study, which was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, found that children whose schooling is most affected are those whose parents’ are not statistically likely to divorce.

Previous research has indicated that children whose parents divorce are less likely to complete high school and to attend and complete college. However, the researchers wanted to examine whether the impact of divorce would be worse for children in families that expect marital stability and are unprepared for disruption.

“We are generally interested in the impact of disruptive events on children, and whether such events are more or less disruptive for some individuals. If some families anticipate disruption and disadvantage, we questioned how disruptive any particular event may be for those individuals,” explained study author Jennie E. Brand, a professor of sociology and statistics at UCLA.

For their study, the researchers examined data on the family and socioeconomic backgrounds of 11,512 children and 4,931 mothers from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the National Longitudinal Survey Child Mother File, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics program that began in 1979 and has continued to follow respondents ever since.

Mothers who were most likely to get divorced were women who themselves grew up in single-parent families, who had inflexible work hours, who had depressive symptoms, and who had low self-esteem. High levels of education and household income, on the other hand, generally reduced the odds of divorce.

Children in families with a low likelihood of divorce tended to have higher rates of educational attainment overall. But their educational attainment was significantly impacted by divorce.

“Parental divorce may trigger an acute sense of deprivation among these relatively advantaged children, whose peers tend to be likewise advantaged and for whom family instability is uncommon and comes as a shock,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Among children families with a high likelihood of divorce, on the other hand, there was virtually no impact on their likelihood to graduate from high school or college if their parents’ marriage ended.

“First, we argue that while parental divorce is generally associated with unfavorable outcomes for children, it does not follow that every divorce is equally bad for the children it affected. In fact, we find no effect for children who are likely to experience a parental divorce,” Brand told PsyPost.

“We also contend that social discourse and policy aimed at promoting marital stability among disadvantaged families, for whom unfortunate events are common, is misguided.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. Many factors contribute to divorce and it is difficult for researchers to account for all of them.

“The families for whom we observe significant effects of parental divorce on children’s education may be a more selective group. In other words, these families may have had some factors that we do not observe impact both whether or not they divorce and children’s education. If so, we may overstate the impact of divorce for those children,” Brand said.

The study, “Parental divorce is not uniformly disruptive to children’s educational attainment“, was authored by Jennie E. Brand, Ravaris Moore, Xi Song, and Yu Xie.