By: Tia Ghose of Live Science
Divorce may be worse for parent-child bonding if parents split when kids are young, new research suggests. But the study, detailed in a forthcoming issue of the journal
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also shows that any anxiety
or resentment these kids harbor toward divorced parents
as adults doesn't seem to spill over into their romantic relationships.
Moreover, the overall effect of divorce timing on parent-child
relationships was fairly small.
The findings reinforce the notion that the youngest years are a
critical time period for forming attachments, and suggest parents'
divorce early in a child's life can have long-lasting consequences for
their bond with parents — even if they don't remember the divorce
itself. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
Beginning in the 1960s, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth
began investigating the way children bonded to their primary caregivers
(usually moms). Follow-up studies suggested children who were securely
attached to their caregivers tended to do better later in life than
those who were anxious or avoidant of their parents. (When parents are
unavailable, for instance, their kids may learn avoidant behaviors, like
failing to express their needs and becoming self-reliant.) Other
research has shown that divorce has long-lasting effects on kids.
But in most studies on parent-child attachment style, researchers ask
people to recall aspects of childhood retrospectively — a notoriously
unreliable technique. R. Chris Fraley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, and his colleague Marie Heffernan decided to look at a
more objective measure of childhood experience: divorce. The team created an online survey on YourPersonality.net to assess
people's attachment styles toward their parents and other loved ones.
Survey participants also indicated whether and when their parents divorced. The team then analyzed the responses of 7,335 people, most of whom were
women and more than one-third of whom had divorced parents.
Those with divorced parents tended to be more anxious or aloof with their parents, though the overall effect was fairly small. Interestingly, the researchers said, those whose parents divorced
earlier seemed to be impacted the most. In addition, children had better
relationships with the parent they lived with after the divorce
(usually the mother). "We find that children are most securely attached to the parent with
whom they live, post-divorce. We do not know whether this is a causal
relationship; it could very well be the case that many custody
arrangements are driven, in part, by the existing quality of the
relationship between parents and children," Fraley wrote in an email.
Overall, though, people were pretty resilient. "The hopeful thing in the research is that people who experienced
divorce at a young age appear to be no worse off in their romantic
relationships," said Howard Steele, a psychology professor at the New
School for Social Research in New York.
Still, the findings bolster the notion that early childhood is a critical time period for forming attachments.
"Parents begin laying the foundation for the relationship they will
have with their children the day their children are born, if not
sooner," Fraley wrote. "This does not mean that early experiences
determine our future. But some of our research indicates that the
residue of experiences that take place early on might be more
substantial than experiences that take place later."