Everyone recognizes that children suffer when they lose a parent through death. But in recent decades, some progressives have asserted that children suffer relatively little when they lose a parent (usually their father) through divorce. Since they were the ones who pushed permissive divorce laws through the state legislatures, progressives are clearly defending themselves with this de minimis view of the effects of parental divorce on children. The progressive line, however, is fast losing credibility as evidence accumulates indicating that parental divorce actually hurts children more severely than does parental death. The latest piece of evidence comes in the findings of a study recently completed by researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and from the University of Tokyo, a study concluding that parental separation is a decidedly stronger predictor of various forms of mental illness than is parental death.

To compare the psychological effects of parental death with those of parental separation, the researchers parse data collected between 1993 and 1998 from 2,605 male twins from the Virginia population-based twin registry, looking for statistical linkages between parental loss (any loss, death, and separation) during childhood and subsequent lifetime risk for seven common psychiatric and substance-use disorders. The seven disorders of interest to the researchers are Major Depression, General Anxiety Disorder, Phobia, Panic Disorder, Alcohol Dependence, Drug Abuse, and Drug Dependence. 

Painstakingly assessing their data, the authors of the new study see an unmistakable pattern emerging: “Parental separation has stronger and wider effects on mental illness than death.” Specifically, the researchers conclude that parental separation “significantly predicted risk for all disorders except phobia (O[dds]R[atio]s ranged between 1.45 and 2.03).” Looking closer at their data, the researchers conclude that “parental separation had the strongest impacts on risk for depression and drug abuse/dependence.” “By contrast [with the effects of parental separation],” the researchers remark, “parental death was marginally significantly associated with only risk for phobia and alcohol dependence (both of p < 0.05).”

Having shown that “parental separation was significantly associated with almost all disorders,” the researchers move on to a secondary analysis in which “the impacts of separation from mother and father were compared.” Divorce-court judges may think they are protecting children if they award custody to the more nurturing parent (typically the mother); however, the authors of this study conclude that “maternal and paternal separation were almost equally associated with psychopathology.”

The researchers explain that “the impact of separation from mother and father on risk for offspring psychopathology was almost equal except [for] phobia and alcohol dependence. For these two [problems], maternal separation was a stronger predictor than [was] paternal separation.” Surveying the data for other disorders, the researchers conclude that “paternal separation was significantly associated with M[ajor]D[epression] and drug abuse/dependence while maternal separation was associated with drug dependence.”

The Virginia Commonwealth and Tokyo scholars see in their findings strong evidence that “the effect of parental death persists a relatively short time and has weaker impact on adult psychopathology than that of parental separation.” This conclusion, they acknowledge, is “in accordance with previous studies” that have found “no or weak associations between parental death and psychiatric disorders.” The authors of this study indeed interpret the findings of this 2014 study against the backdrop of their own 2002 study in which they “demonstrated that the risk for depressive onsets due to parental death returned to baseline within a limited time whereas a much longer time period was required for the risk due to parental separation to return to baseline.”

The authors may be justified when they conclude by calling for “further research . . . in larger prospective cohorts to confirm [their] findings and elucidate the mechanisms by which parental loss impacts risk.” But Americans surely know enough already to realize that children face greater risks when a parent employs a divorce lawyer.