We found that late parental divorce which occurred when the adolescents were between 15 and 19 years old had no influence on internalized and externalized mental health problems. Early parental divorce that occurred before the age of 15, on the other hand, was found to have significant association with internalized mental health problem at the baseline survey.
The strength of the study is its prospective design based on a cohort of adolescents aged 15/16 years living in an urban area with diverse cultural, social and economic background. At follow-up, we could compare change in mental distress that ocurred between baseline and follow-up among adolescents who experienced late parental divorce with the change among those whose parents were still married. A limitation is the small sub-sample of those who experienced late parental divorce with risk of type 2 errors. A 32% loss-to-follow-up may influence estimates of prevalence but association measures are shown to be robust to attrition in this sample
. Since non-response was common among non-western students our estimates are more unsecure for ethnic non-Norwegians. We have used self-reported mental health symptoms which are well validated
[17, 18] but self-reported symptoms are arguable in epidemiological research, especially in children and adolescents
Our results that show association of early parental divorce with internalized mental health problems are supported by earlier Norwegian
[4, 11] and other western
[19, 20] studies. In the former Norwegian study from Nord-Trøndelag county Størksen et al. found about the same increase in mental distress despite that the divorce rate in their mostly rural area is half of that of Oslo
[3, 21]. They had the objectives, among others, of determining whether the effect of early divorce was different at follow-up compared to baseline
. We have not found any prospective study like ours of mental health problems after late parental divorce but our results seems to differ from earlier Scandinavian
[6, 22, 23] and western studies
[1, 19, 20]. We find no increase in mental health problems among adolescents who experienced late parental divorce compared to their 18/19 years-old peers whose parents were still married at follow-up. Two of these three Finish and Swedish studies had data on children and adolescents from about twenty years ago. Thus, the effects of parental distress in late adolescence may have diminished in recent years.
Fröjd et al. recent study from Finland used another method, showing significant influence of caretaker change on depression
. We have similar data of caretaker changes, and found the same. In both studies, caretaker change refers to various forms of family transitions including parental divorce. Interestingly, adolescents moving away from home did not show significant changes in internalizing problems in both studies. This only recent study from Scandinavia does not contradict our results.
Another possible interpretation of these results may be that our measures of mental health problems are not good enough; however, our two tests are well validated and much used
[17, 18]. A type 2 error because of a small sample is a possibility; in that case the effect among these adolescents in Oslo probably are smaller than found before.
We find it most probable that internalized (anxiety and depression) and externalized (conduct) health problems after parental divorce in late adolescence are not higher any more compared to children of non-divorced parents. This does not mean that parental divorce is not followed by many problems for children and adolecents, both emotional and practical burdens. Our measures are directed towards mental disease-related problems, and they may have been reduced as divorce has turned more common. Other problems of the offsprings after divorce may still be overwhelming, and should get much concern among parents and others taking care of children and adolescents.