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Parental separation and adult psychological distress: an investigation of material and relational mechanisms

Rebecca E Lacey1*, Mel Bartley1, Hynek Pikhart1, Mai Stafford2 and Noriko Cable1

Author Affiliations

1 Department Epidemiology & Public Health, UCL, 1-19 Torrington Place, WC1E 6BT London, UK

2 MRC Unit for Lifelong Health & Ageing, 33 Bedford Place, WC1B 5JU London, UK

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:272  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-272

Published: 23 March 2014



An association between parental separation or divorce occurring in childhood and increased psychological distress in adulthood is well established. However relatively little is known about why this association exists and how the mechanisms might differ for men and women. We investigate why this association exists, focussing on material and relational mechanisms and in particular on the way in which these link across the life course.


This study used the 1970 British Cohort Study (n = 10,714) to investigate material (through adolescent and adult material disadvantage, and educational attainment) and relational (through parent–child relationship quality and adult partnership status) pathways between parental separation (0–16 years) and psychological distress (30 years). Psychological distress was measured using Rutter’s Malaise Inventory. The inter-linkages between these two broad mechanisms across the life course were also investigated. Missing data were multiply imputed by chained equations. Path analysis was used to explicitly model prospectively-collected measures across the life course, therefore methodologically extending previous work.


Material and relational pathways partially explained the association between parental separation in childhood and adult psychological distress (indirect effect = 33.3% men; 60.0% women). The mechanisms were different for men and women, for instance adult partnership status was found to be more important for men. Material and relational factors were found to interlink across the life course. Mechanisms acting through educational attainment were found to be particularly important.


This study begins to disentangle the mechanisms between parental separation in childhood and adult psychological distress. Interventions which aim to support children through education, in particular, are likely to be particularly beneficial for later psychological health.

Divorce; Material disadvantage; Parent–child relationships; Psychological distress; British cohort study