“When mom and dad went to war the only prisoners they took were the children” — Pat Conroy
In 1921, Dr. Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist, began a study of over 1500 grade school children. The purpose of Terman’s study was to determine what social events in a child’s life led to higher IQs and intellectual potential.
The study was incredibly detailed and comprehensive and interviews were conducted with the children, their families, and their teachers every 5 to 10 years. Terman himself eventually died in 1956 but his colleagues continued to interview the original subjects for the next 30 years.
In 1990, psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin began a follow-up study on the detailed work begun by Dr. Terman. The results of their research would later be published in the best-selling book, The Longevity Project.
Friedman and Martin made many notable discoveries after pouring over the enormous volumes of data. But perhaps the most shocking and significant finding was the long-term impact that divorce had on children. While it had been well established that divorce could have negative impact on children in the short-term, no one had ever had an opportunity to look at the impact of parental divorce on children throughout the life span.
It turned out that parental divorce, more than any other social factor, including the death of a parent, was associated with an early death. In fact parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood.
The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families. The causes of death ranged from accidents and violence to cancer, heart attacks, and stroke.
“The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating–it was a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk.” Howard Freedman, PhD.
Other significant findings regarding children of parental divorce include:
- Boys of divorce showed higher levels of conduct problems soon after the divorce.
- Parents remarrying introduced new behavioral and emotional problems for girls.
- Men from divorced families reported more anxiety and distress in their adult life.
- Parental divorce was associated with more marital disagreements, problems, and divorce in the children’s own marriages.
- Children of divorce tended to marry at an earlier age leading to less mature and stable relationships.
- Lower levels of education along with lower socioeconomic status were associated with adult children of divorce.
- The younger the child was when their parents divorced, the greater the distress and unhappiness they showed in their adult lives.
Poor or inadequate parenting after the divorce was the main cause associated with the negative effects on the children.
Since the longevity project was published other studies have shown that problems resulting from divorce last into adulthood, and often lead to poorer romantic relationships. For more information on the Terman study and its findings, visit The Longevity Project website.
Source material: Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, Richard Niolon PhD, Psychology Today, Kelly, 1998; Amato, 1993; Hetherington, 1991; Wallerstein, 1991