Background: Parental divorce has been associated with reduced well-being in young adults. It is, however, unclear whether this finding is clinically relevant as studies using structured clinical interviews are missing. This study, therefore, investigated if young adults with divorced parents are at risk to develop mental disorders. Furthermore, differences in parental care, social connectedness, chronic stress and traumatic experiences between children of divorced and non-divorced parents were investigated.
Methods: 121 women (mean age: 23 years) were interviewed using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Axis I (i.e., major mental disorders) and II (i.e., personality disorders) Disorders and asked to complete questionnaires assessing parental care, social connectedness (loneliness, attachment anxiety and avoidance), chronic stress, childhood trauma and depression.
Results: Young adults of divorced parents had a higher risk for Axis I but not Axis II disorders as compared to young adults of non-divorced parents. Participants from divorced families as compared to non-divorced families reported more depression, loneliness, childhood trauma, attachment avoidance, attachment anxiety, chronic stress and less paterntal care.
Limitations: Due to the cross-sectional design of this study, conclusions about causality remain speculative.
Conclusion: The increased vulnerability of children of divorced parents to develop mental disorders, and to experience more chronic stress, loneliness, attachment avoidance, attachment anxiety, and traumatic experiences during childhood is alarming and highlights the importance of prevention programs and psycho-education during the process of parental divorce. Parental support with regard to adequate caregiving is needed to help parents to better support their children during and after their divorce.
In this study, an increased risk for children of divorced parents compared to children of non-divorced parents to develop a mental disorder during young adulthood could be observed. However, no increased incidence with regard to personality disorders was found. Furthermore, parental divorce was associated with less parental care, more emotional and physical abuse, more emotional neglect, more loneliness, chronic stress and attachment avoidance and anxiety. The results highlight the need for adequate prevention programs to support both children and parents during this emotionally difficult period.