Case study

Do children suffer the effects of parental separation in adult life?

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Author: Rebecca Lacey, University College London, Mel Bartley, Hynek Pikhart and Noriko Cable of University College London in collaboration with Mai Stafford, MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing

Date: 27 November 2012

Type of case study: Research

About the research

What is the likelihood that children of divorced or separated parents will develop psychological distress as adults?

This study researches the association of parental separation and adult psychological distress by investigating two pathways: material (through economic disadvantage and educational attainment) and relational (parent-child relationship quality, peer relationship quality and adult partnership status).

Previous research claims that as separation becomes more common in society, it will have less of an effect on the children involved. However, findings from this study suggest that children who experience parental separation are more likely to report psychological distress when they reach their 30s than those who grow up in an intact family. What is more, the findings indicate that this association does not diminish over time across generations.

Material and relational mechanisms are important in explaining this increased risk of depression and anxiety amongst children who experience divorce. In particular, educational attainment was found to be important, revealing a need to support separating families, particularly through their educational careers, in order to minimise the long-term consequences for children.

In short, by identifying the mechanisms involved in the association between parental separation and psychological distress, this study will help inform policies as to how families and children who undergo separation can best be supported in order to prevent long-term adverse consequences for psychological health.

About the data

Data for this analysis are drawn from the three maturing British birth cohort studies: the National Child Development Study and the the 1970 British Cohort Study.

The National Child Development Study is a continuing longitudinal study that seeks to follow the lives of all those living in Great Britain who were born in one particular week in 1958. The aim of the study is to improve understanding of the factors affecting human development over the whole lifespan.

The scope of the 1970 British Cohort Study has broadened from a strictly medical focus at the births and families of babies born in the UK to encompass physical and educational development at age 5, physical, educational and social development at ages 10 and 16, and physical, educational, social and economic development at 26 years and beyond.


The authors used logistic regression to assess the association between parental separation in childhood (0-16 years) and psychological distress in adulthood for each cohort. Distress was measured using the Malaise Inventory which captures symptoms of anxiety and depression. A statistical test known as the Wald test was then used to test an interaction between cohort and parental separation to assess cohort differences. Path analysis was used to test potential material and relational pathways involved in explaining why some children are more likely to report psychological distress in adulthood and multiple imputation was used to address missing data in each cohort.

Publications and outputs

The findings were published in the following academic publication:

Lacey, R., Bartley, M., Pikhart, H., Stafford, M., Cable, N. and Coleman, L. (2012) 'Parental separation and adult psychological distress: Evidence for the 'reduced effect' hypothesis?' Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 3(3), pp. 359-368. Retrieved 2 September 2013 from

The research also received media coverage:

Doughty, S. (7 November 2012) 'No longer taboo, but divorce still damanages children', Daily Mail [Web version]. Retrieved 2 September 2013 from

Silverman, R. (7 November 2012) 'Children suffer effects of parents' divorce into adult life - study', The Telegraph [Web version]. Retrieved 2 September 2013 from

The Times of India (11 January 2013) 'Divorce damages kids' adulthood, old age', The Times of India [Web version]. Retrieved 2 September 2013 from

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