Study: Parental Relationships and Adolescent Academic Success

Do teens suffer more than minor emotional pangs when their parents permanently separate? A newly released cooperative study comparison by researchers from three American universities has found that consistently they do. Published in the August 2007 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, the study carefully compared existing data using techniques designed to eliminate biases and methodology challenges as completely as possible. The findings suggested that there is a causal association between parental unity and student achievement, no matter how this issue is studied.

In general,” says the report, “we find consistent results showing that adolescents whose parents’ union dissolves experience poorer academic achievement: grades decline and course failures increase.” The researchers interpreted this as a definite indication that the teens were under strain, at least in the short term.

Adequate long-term studies were not available for comparison, but the researchers noted that the short-term academic decline and course failures these children experienced could reasonably lead to lower achievement in the long term as well. “This finding is troubling given that high school success is critical to long-term educational and occupational opportunity,” says the report. “These findings support other studies that find that short-term turbulence of family instability may lead to negative outcomes for adolescents.”

Changes in family structure occur far more now than ever before, so it is vitally important for society to study the effects this factor may have on the well-being of children and their families. The numbers of single-mother and single-father families have been rising sharply in the past three decades, and researchers estimate that each year more than a million American children see their parents divorce. There is no shortage of studies finding that children do better overall when they live in two-parent households, but researchers disagree about whether such findings can be attributed to parental separation itself, or other factors such as financial hardship.

For this reason, the sociologists who conducted this study matched the participants using the common secondary variables that could otherwise affect the outcome. These included financial instability, marital quality, negative spousal behavior, parental fighting, parent religiosity, maternal and paternal health among other variables. Even after accounting for all of these factors, the researchers commented that, “students who experience union dissolution [of their parents] have much larger declines in overall GPA, somewhere between around one quarter to one third of a letter grade on average for all classes.” In clarification they added, “These estimates are quite large. They represent a full letter grade difference in one half of the students’ courses during the entire year or two-letter grades (for example A vs. C) in a fourth of the classes.”

But lower grades in passing classes was not the worst effect: a dissolved parental relationship was found to predict class failure as well. The researchers considered it worthy of note that “students who experience parental union dissolution will fail more than one class more than students who do not.” A single class can represent as much as a fifth of a high-school student’s course load for a year.

These are not insignificant findings. Considering the dual factors that divorce rates are at an all-time high, and that student achievement rates are a fairly reliable predictor of society’s future occupational and economic stability, studies like this one wave a red flag before parents, professionals and educators alike.

The sociologists involved in this comparison did acknowledge that there could be long-term effects that were not included in measurements since the study was essentially a one-year window into the academic achievement of these students. But this one-year window provides enough of a view to draw certain conclusions about how teens are affected by their parents’ broken relationships: “Grades are a measure of how well students meet course demands, such as test taking, homework completion, and possibly other forms of behavioral expectations,” the researchers pointed out, “and course failures provide a strong signal that students are struggling. Although the point estimates for the amount of difficulty differ slightly depending upon the estimation procedure, the patterns are remarkably consistent.”