June 2, 2011 -- The teacher thought it was attention deficit disorder. But David Ihrig had a different theory on why his 6-year-old son was falling behind at school.
Ihrig had recently separated from his wife. And while they tried to shelter their two young kids from the fallout of their pending divorce, it proved impossible to escape.
"Every parent does their best, but it's a very distracting time," said Ihrig, who lives in Irvine, Calif.
As Ihrig adjusted to life as a single dad, his son struggled to adjust to a world split in two. And his performance at school started to suffer.
"Kids see their parents struggling to cope," said Ihrig, recalling the first time he had to do his 5-year-old daughter's hair. "So when they get to school, I'm sure they're still a little frazzled."
Studies have linked divorce to setbacks in school, including lower completion rates. But pinning down the effects of the split and teasing them out from the tension preceding it can be tricky.
"It's not like everything is going great and then all of a sudden there's a divorce," said Alan Kazdin, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic in New Haven, Conn. "There might be marital conflict in the home, whether it's deep tension or all-out screaming, and that can be very stressful for everyone, including children."
But new research suggests divorce, not the discord leading up to it, can negatively impact kids' performance at school. In a study of 3,500 children, those whose parents divorced between the first and third grade scored lower in math and had poorer interpersonal skills than those whose parents stayed married.
"I think parents and teachers need to look at child development more closely during divorce," said Hyun Sik Kim, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and author of the report published today in the American Sociological Review. "If a teacher knows a child is experiencing parental divorce, I would suggest they need to care for the child more intensively."
The negative effects of a break-up coincided with the split itself, suggesting that tension leading up to the divorce impacts school performance less than the loss of a parent.
"The vulnerability that kids have going through a divorce has to do with an increase in anxiety, and that comes from a sense of loss," said Jay. "No matter how much parents were fighting before the divorce, once a parent is gone we would expect to see symptoms of anxiety and depression."
Withdrawal, unexplained tearfulness, and disruptions in sleep and appetite can signal anxiety in kids, Jay said. And anxiety can wreak havoc on attention.
"Math requires more concentration than other subjects," said Jay Reeve, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University and chief executive officer of the Apalachee Center Inc. in Tallahassee, Fla. "It doesn't rely on memory. It requires attention and mental agility. If you're panicky or feeling anxious, it's probably easier to remember some facts than it is to go through a complex mathematical operation."
Kim did not see any effects of divorce on other cognitive skills, such as reading, but observed that kids whose parents divorced also displayed anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and sadness more often than kids whose parents were together.
Kazdin said parents should assume their divorce is affecting their children and do everything they can to make the transition as smooth as possible.
"There should be a lot of reassurance, a lot of physical contact. And try to put what's happening into words a child can understand," he said.
A divorce can feel like the end of the world for young kids. But keeping up old routines and rituals can help restore a sense of security throughout insecure times, Kazdin said. For Ihrig's son, a stable routine made all the difference.
"I took steps to get our routine a little better set," Ihrig said. "I swear to you, he finished all his work that first day and he never missed it again."