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Family Disruption and Child Wellbeing

Tags: , , , , child well-being, children, depression, divorce, family, intact family, MARRI, marriage, Pat Fagan, social policy, youth No comments

The most comprehensive overview of the effects of divorce on children until then was a 2012 synthesis paper I wrote with Aaron Churchill. For this blog I composed a short review of the more recent literature on divorce using the National Institute of Health’s Library and database. The simplified results confirm and extend the findings of the 2012 paper:

Parental disruption of the family leads to increased levels and diverse forms of depression (very noticeably in China) and anxiety, earlier death and serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, increased rates of cancer and stroke, and other somatic symptoms, such as atopic dermatitis. Ironically, the divorce of parents also decreases the likelihood of taking the medicine needed to treat personal illness and increases additional poor health behaviors (smoking, alcohol use [including early drinking], and unhealthy eating [obesity]). These effects, especially depression, persist into adulthood for offspring of divorced parents. For children who are already depressed (linked likely to family unhappiness) depression deepens with the divorce of parents and episodes of serious depression become more frequent and sometimes morph into bipolar depression.

When parents divorce, a child’s world is shattered. For some children it is a slow disintegration. For others it is cataclysmic in its suddenness.  The depth of the wounds is much the same, though the variety of wounds is myriad and, though patterns abound, each wound is unique and idiosyncratic in its effects on the mind, heart and soul of each child, even when a grown adult.

With divorce, the very center of the child’s universe has imploded. Yes, the child has to pick up the pieces and get on with life,  but they are pieces, a poor substitute for a wonderful whole. If the marriage of parents is the rich soil in which children thrive, then divorce leads them to a perpetual depletion diet.  The rich nutrition of love and unity is bleached out of their food. Different events — a visit to a friend’s home, a scene in a movie, a line in a song — reminds them all the time that they no longer eat steak every day but rather a thinner soup that they just have to get used to. No matter how much divorced parents try they cannot deny their rejection of each other, nor the wounds that rejection causes: They have made their child’s universe crooked. Granted in many cases it is one parent who did the shattering.  Given the effects on his or her children such a person has become evil by doing so great an evil. Hard words?  Just read the effects above in the italicized paragraph again (and they are only partial; for the full list read the full paper).

As laws have shifted away from protecting citizens from harm, by forbidding evils and punishing wrongs, legislators have turned instead to “policy making”. This shift really took off with the sexual revolution and the divorce revolution. The more they aided and abetted the storm (passing no-fault divorce laws), the more effort they have to put into minimizing the damage: This is much of “social policy.”

It is disheartening to read research articles on the effects of divorce on children. The vast majority of studies encourage social policy to reduce the damage done to children by divorce.  Virtually nowhere is there a push for efforts to save couples from divorce, to rebuilding broken marriages or even (especially) those on the rocks. The mantra instead is one of conflict reduction… It is better that the children live in a home with less turmoil.  No one talks of a rebuilt home, a rebuilt marriage.

I know a man who is one of the great healers of “bad marriages”.  He may be  the greatest.  At one time he was working in a family court (a divorce court) in a large Mid-Western city. After he had demonstrated his skill by resolving  some awful relationships the judges gave him access to those waiting for their day in the divorce court. Soon, about half the divorce-seeking couples were going away HAPPILY reconciled. But that cut into the incomes of their divorce lawyers. In response, the divorce lawyers’ lobby got rid of him by having the legislature threaten to significantly cut the family-court’s budget. There is a special place in hell for the lawyers who pulled that off, and also for those behind the no-fault divorce revolution (read Jane Anderson’s 2014 on the effects of divorce if you think that too strong).

Next week I will delve into the effects (visible in the Add Health data) of divorce on boys. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the social science literature: The divorce of parents plus the worship of God turns boys into sexual predators.  

After this delving into the dark side, I feel like a good shower and a good drink, or something even better to revive the heart.

Smartphones and Technology

community, depression, family, happiness, Technology, youth No comments

Today’s two findings link the digital world with relational outcomes that no one wants: abortion and unhappiness.  The digital world is a two-edged sword.  We know its benefits, but increasingly we are getting to know it’s down-sides.  Japan, one of the most digitally saturated societies on earth, is experiencing one of technology’s noxious byproducts: hikikomori  they call it, the shut-in lifestyle of young people who have withdrawn from society in fear and isolation to live, not socially, but digitally.

Being human, we are deeply relational from the first moments of our existence and thrive on good relationships throughout our lives. We are brought into existence by the most intimate and desirable of relational activities.  We come into the world to be nursed and cuddled in an intimacy many of us, subconsciously, seek to recreate throughout life, especially if we did not get enough in infancy.  We thrive in families that spend lots of time together, supporting each other in the tasks of life.  This is made even easier for us if we live in a close community.  Add lots of intact marriages and lots of weekly worship (both deeply relational) and life is pretty good for almost all involved.  Children who grow up in these environments are much more likely to thrive in adulthood.

Life in a Jewish Family” by Edith Stein, describes just such a family life in a close-knit Jewish community. It changed how my wife and I raised our children.  Later it led me to frequently suggest to my daughters that, in their turn, they consider living close to each other, if possible, when they married and began their own families because their children would benefit from all the aunts, uncles, and cousins they would have around them.  Better still, if they were anchored in a community of worship, and best of all if they had all this and friends close by.  What gifts for all the children involved!

Charles Murray of AEI in Coming Apart and Robert Putnam of Harvard in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis tell pretty much the same story: upper-class parents, by and large, understand the relational needs of their children and that their own marriage is foundational to their children’s future.  These parents are well educated and know the research. These upper-class parents also understand and practice the worship of God more than most!

But all this good work can be undone, even for the best of parents, should the digital get a hold on the imagination and habits of their children.

Here too, savvy elites catch on quickly:  A few years ago, I gave a presentation to a group of very wealthy and highly educated married couples. The topic was ‘the benefits to children of the time married parents spend with them’.  One of the couples recounted their smartphone strategy: every family member, including each parent, puts his smartphone into a big ceramic bowl in the foyer when he arrives home.  The phones stay there until after dinner and, on going to bed, are put back there again until after breakfast … which they all have together as their start to the day.  They insisted they knew the value of things and that the most valuable of all is time with the most important people in their lives … each other and their children.

 

With an eye to the child, the future of America,

Pat Fagan,
Director, MARRI at CUA

Religious Practice and Mental Health

depression, mental health, religion, worship 2 comments

By MARRI Intern

          MARRI research maintains that “good mental health is highly correlated to religious participation.”  Strong faith and frequent involvement in spiritual or religious activities are key elements in reducing the risk of depression in an individual’s life.  Numerous studies have previously established this idea that the higher the prevalence of religiosity in an individual’s life the lower the risk of depression.  An example found within this MARRI research observes “adolescents at one public school in Texas who frequently attended religious services and derived great meaning and purpose from religion in their lives had lower levels of depression than their less religious peers.”

Now, an article by Andrew Seaman introduces new research which suggests that there may be a further link between depression, spirituality, and the brain.  This specific study was by a number of researchers from Columbia University who came to the conclusion that the participants who claimed spirituality as a highly important element in their lives had a thicker cortex.  Some participants in this study had a higher risk for depression because of their family history, while the control group did not.  The data seems to suggest that spirituality can act as a sort of protection for the brain and “that religiosity can enhance the brain’s resilience against depression in a very physical way.”  This particular research now indicates that people who are not “spiritually active” may be more prone to depression due to a thinner cortex.  

Exploration in this specific area, like research in most other areas, presents the need for caution in that there is the possibility that “there could be other areas of the brain linked to religion and spirituality. Also, spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status.”

But as this new study shows, the level of personal importance of religious practice carries dramatic implications for many areas of life.  Additional MARRI data shows that the more frequently an individual engages in religious worship, the more individuals, families, and communities will see the benefits.  When people obey God and “take heed of Him, the more He takes care of them,” and the more He tends to bless them in incredible ways.