Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Children of divorce whose parents don't live near each other may be at risk for long-term problems, among them poorer health, greater hostility and less financial support for college, new research suggests.
The study, by scientists at Arizona State University in Tempe, provides an unprecedented snapshot of the impact of a broken home with far-flung pieces vs. one in which the parents stay geographically close.
"There's been a lot written about the difficulty of making relocation decisions," said Dallas psychologist Richard Warshak, "But what's been lacking is any study specifically on how relocation affects children."
The research also calls into question a recent trend in which some courts are predisposed to allow custodial parents to move with the children, the scientists noted.
"What we found is that when children whose parents have divorced experience a move away of either of their parents, they do less well on a variety of indices," said Sanford Braver, lead author of the study, which was released Wednesday. "In other words, they suffer and they are more likely to have problems."
The researchers focused on 602 Arizona State students whose parents were divorced, comparing those whose parents stayed near the original family home to those who had at least one parent who at some point relocated more than an hour way, with or without the student. Sixty-one percent of the students either moved, or had a parent move, such a distance.
Overall, those with a geographically distant parent fared worse on 11 of 14 measures of well-being, the scientists report in the current Journal of Family Psychology.
As a group, those with a distant parent received about $1,800 less per year in parental college support when they relocated with their mother and about $1,000 less when their father moved away. These students also worried more about college expenses, particularly when it was their father who had moved, the research found.
Students with a distant parent also tended to be more hostile and have more distress from the divorce, and - collectively - have more difficulty with personal adjustment. The troubles with adjustment - as well as a generally lower life satisfaction and more hostility - traced mainly to the most infrequent situations, those where the child either stayed with or moved with the father, the scientists found.
California psychologist Judith Wallerstein suggested that finding, in particular, needs more scrutiny.
"The youngsters who had been in the custody of their fathers looked considerably more troubled, and that's very serious," she said.
The new study is valuable for the breadth of the scientists' approach, noted Warshak, author of "Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex."
"They relied on a wide range of outcome measures, so they weren't just pinning their results to one outcome measure," he said.
Students with a distant parent also had lower self-ratings of physical health, lower perceived levels of each parent's emotional support, lower rankings of both parents as role models, and a lower assessment of the quality of the parents' relationship with each other.
Hostility is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular and other health problems later in life, the scientists noted, and overall self-assessments of health have been found to predict premature death.
While the results show that low ratings of well-being and history of parental moves are related, the data don't show that the moves alone caused ill effects, experts noted.
"It could be that to a large extent the parents who are going to be positive role models and maintain a lifelong commitment to their children express that commitment by not moving away from their children and not putting their children in that situation," said Warshak, who specializes in divorce and custody issues.
However, in continuing research, Braver and colleagues have found preliminary support for the notion that the move itself is behind some of the students' problems. For instance, he said, the scientists have controlled their results to account for family violence and conflict, and for parents who are disengaged, yet those adjustments haven't accounted for the difference in well-being.
In the current study, students with and without a distant parent fared comparably in three measures of well-being: their assessment of choices regarding friendships and romantic relationships, and whether they abused alcohol or other substances.
Wallerstein, a pioneering researcher and author who examines the impact of divorce in children, emphasized those measures as more important measures than the others included in the study.
"They're making a great deal out of less important differences," she said of the scientists.
Courts had been more inclined to prevent a custodial parent from moving away from the other parent - and make that parent prove it was in the child's best interest - until a 1996 California case, known as Burgess, the study noted. In that case the court held that the custodial parent should be able to move with the child unless the other parent can demonstrate that transferring custody is vital for the child's well-being. The underlying assumption of the court, Braver said, is that benefits to the custodial parent will help the child.
"Our study casts very great doubt on that assertion," Braver added, "because there's independent effects of the move on the child."
Wallerstein, who is considered instrumental in the Burgess decision, said the new study didn't shed much light on exactly how the students were affected by such a move. "It's unfortunate that the researchers didn't have any personal data about what led those people to move in the first place," she said. Factors that might lead to such a move, such as a remarriage, are also relevant to the children's well-being, she noted.
But Braver argues that in general, moving itself is problematic, and that parents should consider such a move carefully.
"Just like all parents, sometimes we make sacrifices for the sake of our children. And now there's some evidence that maybe that sacrifice is called for," he said.
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