GENETICS & ENVIRONMENT INFLUENCE CHILDREN'S
ADJUSTMENT DURING DIVORCE

Thomas G. O'Connor, Ph.D., Robert Plomin, Ph.D.,
John C. DeFries, Ph.D., and Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D.

Behavioral problems in children from divorced families have been partially blamed on family conflict and parental maladjustment. New research, however, has found that both genetic and environmental factors mediate how well or not so well a child will do after parents divorce. This finding is part of a study of adoptive and biological families over a 12-year period.

From a longitudinal study of 398 adoptive and biological families (the Colorado Adoption Project), researchers examined how much children's self-concept, social competence, academic achievement, behavioral and emotional health and likelihood of early drug use are influenced by stress associated with divorce.

In the biological family sample, 28 percent of the families divorced by the child's 12th birthday. Following the divorce, these children had more behavioral and emotional problems (aggressive behavior, delinquency, depression, anxiety and withdrawal), lower levels of academic achievement and poorer social adjustment reported by their teachers. The children also reported earlier drug use more than the children whose parents did not divorce, said psychologist Thomas G. O'Connor, Ph.D., of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, England.

Among the adoptive families, 13 percent of the parents divorced before their children turned 12. These children also had more behavioral problems and early drug use than the adopted children whose parents stayed married, said the authors. But, the authors found no difference in academic achievement and social competence in either the adopted children from the divorced or intact families.

The results suggest that parental divorce and measures of children's self-esteem, social competence and academic achievement may be partly genetically influenced, suggested by the fact that adopted children from broken homes and intact homes showed no difference in these attributes, said Dr. O'Connor.

Because the association between parental divorce and measures of children's behavioral/emotional problems is not any stronger in biological than adoptive families, the authors inferred environmental rather than genetic origins.

The authors say future studies should examine the possible genetic influence of long-term life-course outcomes associated with divorce, including premature termination of education and the likelihood of divorce in adulthood.

Reference:
"Are Associations Between Parental Divorce and Children's Adjustment Genetically Mediated? An Adoption Study," Thomas G. O'Connor, Ph.D., and Robert Plomin, Ph.D., John C. DeFries, Ph.D. and Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D.; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 4

10/27/00

Thomas G. O'Connor can be reached by telephone at (+44) 020-7848-0873.

 

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