THURSDAY, June 2, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Young children of divorce are not only more likely to suffer from anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and sadness, they experience long-lasting setbacks in interpersonal skills and math test scores, new research suggests.
Children do not fall behind their peers in these areas during the potentially disruptive period before their parents divorce, the study revealed. Instead, it's after the split that kids seem to have the most trouble coping.
"Somewhat surprisingly, children of divorce do not experience detrimental setbacks in the pre-divorce period," noted study author Hyun Sik Kim, a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "From the divorce stage onward, however, children of divorce lag behind in math test scores and interpersonal social skills."
"Children of divorce also show enhanced risk of internalizing problem behaviors characterized by anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and sadness," Kim said.
While the negative impacts do not continue to worsen several years after the divorce, "there is no sign that children of divorce catch up with their counterparts, either," he added.
The study is published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.
In the study, Kim discussed how the fallout from divorce might harm childhood development.
Children may be stressed by an ongoing parental blame game or child custody conflicts. This stress could be compounded by the loss of stability when a child is shuttled between separate households or has to move to another region altogether, thus losing contact with his or her original network of friends.
In fact, Kim observed a dramatic change in family locations, suggesting that children of divorce were more likely to change schools.
Parents' divorce-related depression might also play a role, as could economic strains when family income suddenly drops, he said.
In his research, Kim analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study on 3,600 children who entered kindergarten in 2008.
The children were tracked through fifth grade. Over that time, Kim compared children whose parents had gotten divorced while the child was in the first, second or third grade with the children of intact marriages.
Among the divorce group, Kim examined child development over three phases: the "pre-divorce" period from kindergarten to the 1st grade; the "divorce period" from 1st through 3rd grade; and the "post-divorce" period from 3rd through 5th grade.
Kim found that while a divorce is in progress, first, second and third-graders experience a dip in math test scores -- a decline that holds steady once the divorce is final. Interpersonal skills also suffer during divorce, affecting a child's ability to make and keep friends, and the ability to express feelings and opinions in a positive way.
On a positive note, however, Kim found that reading scores remain unaffected, and that children do not seem to be at a higher risk for "externalizing" problem behavior such as arguing, fighting or getting angry.
He also noted some limitations of the study, including that the children were followed after divorce for only two years.
"One implication of the study is that we need to intervene as soon as possible when we observe a child experiencing a parental divorce," Kim said, "because my findings suggest that once children of divorce [have gone] through detrimental impacts, it is hard to make them catch up with children from intact families."
Richard E. Lucas, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University, said that longer-term research would be needed to see whether or not the apparent setbacks in kids' math and social skills eventually dissipate.
"We definitely find that that major life events, such as divorce, can have a significant effect on an individual's well-being," he said. "So it's not surprising that we see a timely reaction among these children."
"But while some events have really long-lasting effects that actually seem to be permanent, others may persist for a few years but eventually return back to the baseline level [that was present] before the event occurred," he added. "In this case, a much longer-term study would be called for to see if this particular dynamic unfolds in that way or not."
For more on divorce and children, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.