Parental separation and adult psychological distress: evidence for the 'reduced effect' hypothesis?

Rebecca Emily Lacey, Mel Bartley, Hynek Pikhart, Mai Stafford, Noriko Cable, Lester Coleman


Parental separation has been linked to increased likelihood of reporting psychological distress in adulthood, but relatively little is known about how this association may have changed over time. One hypothesis is that as the experience of separation has become more common, the association with psychological distress will reduce (the ‘reduced effect’ hypothesis). Previous evidence using the British birth cohorts does not support this hypothesis, but past studies have several limitations which we aim to address. In this study we measure parental separation from birth, account for missing data and statistically test cohort differences using data from two British birth cohorts – the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS) and 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS). Despite these methodological improvements, we find little evidence to support the ‘reduced effect’ hypothesis: parental separation was associated with a similarly increased likelihood of reporting psychological distress in adulthood for men and women in both cohorts.


parental divorce; psychological distress; NCDS; BCS; cohort differences; parental separation; gender

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