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Divorce in early childhood may harm adult ties with parents

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By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, July 16 (HealthDay News) -- If parents divorce when their children are young, the split can affect how secure these children will feel about their relationship with their parents as adults, new research shows.

"The disruptive consequences of parental divorce on the security of parent-child relationships are more acute when parental divorce takes place early versus later in a child's life," said study author R. Chris Fraley, a professor of psychology at the university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Fraley analyzed data from 7,335 of men and women, average age 24, who participated in a survey about personality and close relationships online. More than one-third of the participants' parents had divorced.

On average, the children were aged 9 at the time of the divorce.

Men and women from divorced families were less likely to see their current relationship with their parents as secure. Those who parents divorced when they were under 5 were more insecure than those whose parents divorced when they were older.

When a person feels they have a secure relationship with a parent, Fraley said, they feel they can trust them and depend on them and that the parent will be available psychologically.

In the study, published online recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, feelings of insecurity were much greater for the adult children's relationships with their fathers.

The divorce did not have an substantial effect on the adult children's views of their romantic partners, Fraley found.

"This research suggests that the consequences of parental divorce are selective," he said, "Undermining the security that people have in their parental relationships more so than their romantic ones."

Fraley repeated the analysis with another group of 7,500 adults. These men and women, if their parents divorced, told which parent had primary custody. While 74 percent lived with mothers, 11 percent lived with their fathers. The rest lived with other caretakers.

Participants were most likely to have an insecure adult relationship with the parent they did not live with, Fraley found.

Fraley won't make recommendations based on the study. In the paper, however, he writes that ''something as basic as the amount of time that one spends with a parent or one's living arrangements can have the potential to shape the quality of the attachment relationship that one has with a parent."

The new results echo some found earlier by Jennifer Vendemia, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. She was not involved with the latest study.

While the study new has strengths, she said one potential weakness is the questionnaire used, which is not yet well known in the field.

However, she said the take-home from the new study is that "Fathers need to make an effort to stay involved in a child's life."

Another expert said the new study shows divorce has long-term effects. "But at the same time, these effects are potentially limited -- that is, likely to be most influential on one's relationship with his or her parents," said Omri Gillath, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas.

While not minimizing the effect, he noted that the study found divorce does not seem to affect all relationships as an adult.

"It is also important to keep in mind that although divorce can have many negative consequences, sometimes staying together rather than getting a divorce is actually worse for the child."

His advice for divorcing parents? Be as civilized as possible, he said, acknowledging that can be difficult.

More information

To learn more about helping children whose parents are divorcing, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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