October 19, 2007 / 8:18 PM / 12 years ago

Adolescents need support during family breakups

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Family breakups take a toll on adolescents, who have high rates of psychological and social problems, including substance abuse, behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression, according to a report in the journal Pediatrics

In addition, the psychological and social distress shown by separated and divorcing parents can play a significant role in their adolescent children’s respond to the family breakup, study findings suggest.

“What is the most deleterious for the children is the atmosphere in which the separation occurs and the deterioration of the family relational processes and not the separation in itself,” Dr. Christelle Roustit, of the Research Group on the Social Determinants of Health and Healthcare, and Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, told Reuters Health.

Roustit and colleagues administered questionnaires to 2,346 adolescents, divided into age groups of 13 and 16 years old, who participated in the Social and Health Survey of Children and Adolescents in Quebec, Montreal. In addition, surveys were also completed by 1,983 parents.

Overall, substance abuse, including alcohol, was approximately two-times higher in these adolescents compared with adolescents who were not going through a family breakup. Although seen in both groups, the rate of substance abuse was considerably higher among the 16-year olds.

Oppositional attitudes and behaviors, such as fighting, damaging property and theft were increased in both age groups. While Roustit noted that paternal support helped mediate the association between family breakup and psychological distress, it did not affect oppositional behavior.

Levels of depression and anxiety also were higher than normal in both age groups. In particular, the risk of suicide attempts was three- to four-times higher among 13 year olds, compared with 16 year olds, Roustit said. These behaviors, however, were modified by parental support.

Higher rates of psychological distress reported by parents were linked with adolescent psychological distress as well as the adolescents’ acts of defiance, fighting, vandalism, animal cruelty, theft or other violations of the law, but not with adolescent alcohol use or substance abuse.

Adolescent psychological distress in both age groups was also strongly associated with witnessing violence between parents.

Preventing maladjustment disorders among adolescents during times of family break ups, the investigators conclude, may require legal interventions that encourage divorce mediation or joint custody, as well as social interventions that support children and families with their readjustments.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, October 2007.

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