Kids Whose Parents Have Bitter Relationships More Likely to be Sickly Adults, Study Finds

It’s no secret that separation and divorce takes a toll on children, especially if their parents are harboring hostile or bitter feelings toward one another. Psychologists have long suggested children whose parents are divorced or separated are prone to several psychological effects and outcomes due to the drastic changes in their household structure, including depression, anxiousness, poorer grades, struggles with trusting others and even increased health risks.

Now researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have linked a factor of separation to increased odds of catching a cold in adults whose parents divorced or separated when they were children. The observational study’s findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday.

“There’s a lot of research that’s been conducted over the past three-four decades that has shown that children of divorced parents are at risk for all sorts of psychological health outcomes and even some physical health outcomes. More recent work has shown that it’s not really necessarily about the divorce per se, but there seem to be factors related to divorce, such as how well parents can communicate regarding their child following the divorce, that seems to be better predictors of outcomes,” Michael Murphy, a psychology postdoctoral research associate in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and co-author of the study, told Newsweek during a phone call Tuesday. “So we were sort of interested in bringing this research forward and asking, ‘Well are there maybe other certain features of the divorce that can confirm more risks than others and does this actually map on to increased likelihood of catching an illness if we experimentally induce it.’”

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After splitting 201 adults into three groups—including those who reported their parents remained together throughout their childhood, those who reported their parents were separated or divorced and remained on speaking terms throughout their childhood and those who parents divorced and did not remain on speaking terms throughout their childhood—researchers found adults with divorced parents who did not speak to one another following their separation were three times more likely to develop a cold compared to adults whose parents remained together.

Murphy said the psychological stress a child may endure after their parents separate or divorce and fail to remain in contact could eventually have an adverse effect on the immune system, which could, in turn, cause kids to catch colds more easily when they became adults.

“There’s good evidence that stressful life experiences, especially when they’re persistent over a long period of time, can do things to our physiology that increase risk of future illness. And there’s also a number of sort of adverse childhood experiences that can sort of effect our immune systems and future disease risks,” Murphy said. “So we interpreted this to the extent that having parents who were divorced and not on speaking terms is probably an indicator of lots of acrimony in the family environment and sort of a lot of ongoing stress there that then translates downstream to having an impact on the immune system. And then through the immune system it also impacts actual health.”

Meanwhile, adults whose parents remained in communication following divorce surprisingly had no increased risks of catching a cold, which Murphy suggested could have been due to divorced or separated parents who maintained communication having a better handle on coordinating a child’s needs compared to parent’s embattled in acrimony during separation or divorce.

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The research couldn’t necessarily determine whether adults whose parents divorced during their childhood would have been any less likely to catch a cold if they’re parents had remained together. However, the findings were certainly grounds for more research on how the environmental factors of divorce could affect a child’s health in the future.

“I think there needs to be more work done on understanding what specific factors related to divorce are associated with concerning either risk or resilience. And from there I think there needs to be some intervention work done looking at whether we can improve child outcomes along these factors that are found to be most predictive of bad outcomes,” Murphy said.

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