Alexander Wambach and Dr. Kevin Shafer, Sociology Department
The United States has experienced a greying of divorce over the last 25 years. During this period, the divorce rate among couples aged 50 and older doubled, and almost 25 percent of divorces that took place in 2010 involved someone 50 years of age or older (Brown and Lin 2013). Many of these older divorcing couples are likely to have children who are already adults at the time the divorce takes place. Qualitative evidence indicates the adult children of late-life divorce are negatively impacted in some way (Greenwood 2012). I hypothesized that adults who have a parent that is recently divorced will score higher on a depression scale than those who do not.
In order to test my hypothesis, I used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 cohort (NLSY97), which is a biannual survey of more than 9,000 U.S. residents who were between the ages of 14 and 18 in 1997. In the data, I differentiated between respondents who had never experienced parental divorce, those who had experienced parental divorce in childhood, and those who had experienced parental divorce after they turned 18. I then used statistical models to test my hypothesis, including controls for gender, income, education and race.
Of the 6,978 adults surveyed in my study, over 400 had experienced a parental divorce after turning 18. On average, this group did have higher scores on a depression scale compared to people who never experienced parental divorce, a difference that is statistically significant based on the results of a simple one way t-test. However, regression analysis that controls for other variables like race, gender, and socioeconomic status reduces parental divorce in adulthood to non-significance as an explanation for higher scores on the NLSY97 depression scale.
My results indicate a somewhat complicated relationship between late-life parental divorce and the mental health of the adult children of divorcing parents. It appears that there is a significant difference in depression scale scores between respondents who had experienced parental divorce in adulthood and those who had not, but controlling for other variables revealed that this relationship might be spurious. In other words, the relationship between depression scores and late-life parental divorce is probably caused by a third factor. This is good news for adult children of divorce because this is a small piece of evidence that shows that there may be ways to mitigate some of the psychological distress that surrounds parental divorce. There are some limitations to this study that need to be taken into account. First, the depression scale included in NLSY97 data uses only 5 questions, making it an extremely imprecise measure of mental health. Additionally, I used a question asking if respondents’ parents divorced in the last 5 years, which is also a very imprecise way to measure my primary independent variable. While this research represents my best work, I believe that these limitations are serious, and my results should be interpreted with caution.
The effects of late-life parental divorce on adult children have been, until recently, largely ignored. This study examines the potential effects of parental divorce on the mental health of adult children in terms of scores on a depression scale. Because the results of my study indicate that a third variable mediates the relationship between parental divorce and depression, more research must be done. Using different data sets to serve as comparisons, I hope to explore possible mediating variables that explain the relationship between divorce and depression in adult children of divorcing parents. I also hope to find data that include more precise ways to measure my primary independent and dependent variables, which will increase the confidence that I have in my results.
Brown, Susan L., and I-F Lin. 2012. “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 67(6):731-741. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs089.
Greenwood, Joleen L. 2012. “Parentchild Relationships in the Context of a Mid- to Late-Life Parental Divorce.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 53(1):1-17. doi: 10.1080/10502556.2012.635959.