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Child health and parental relationship termination in the Danish context

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A recent study suggests that the experience of having a child diagnosed with disability or chronic illness is associated with a higher likelihood of relationship termination among cohabiting and married parents in Denmark. These results imply that more focus on the needs of family members, beyond the disabled child, in future policy efforts might prove beneficial to the well-being of families in this situation. The study was based on data from the Danish Longitudinal Study of Children, which follows a cohort of Danish children born in 1995.

The majority of studies on the link between child health and parental relationship termination investigate this association with child health as the outcome of interest. Using data from the Danish Longitudinal Study of Children (DALSC), this study reversed this typical line of inquiry, and examined whether the experience of having a child diagnosed with a disability or chronic illness was associated with a greater risk of parental relationship termination.

When a child is diagnosed with a disability or chronic illness, many families adjust well, but some do not. Although there has been some debate on whether raising a disabled or chronically ill child brings the family together or pulls it apart, children with disabilities or chronic illnesses are more likely to live only with their mother.

Raising a disabled or chronically ill child might result in severe emotional and financial strains on the parents. To have a child diagnosed with disability or chronic illness is often a shocking experience and likely to foster emotional responses that put the parental relationship under exceptional strain. Also, the more long-term effect on these families’ resources with regard to time and money may negatively affect the parental relationship.

Observing the families up to the observed child’s 12th birthday (from 1996 to 2007), discrete-time hazard regression analyses of 5063 Danish families were estimated, taking into account the occurrence, timing, and severity of a child’s diagnosis of disability or chronic illness. The models were controlled for well know determinants of parental divorce such as family consensus, relationship quality, parents’ well-being, parents’ experience of own parents divorce, mother’s education, union status, length of relationship, and number of children present in the household. The findings indicate that child health matters as an independent factor. Parents who experience having a child diagnosed with a disability or chronic illness have a greater risk of subsequently terminating their relationship. In addition, there was a small indication that the risk of parental relationship termination slightly decreases as the child ages.

These findings indicate that disability-related disparity in family-level outcomes, such as parental relationship termination, persist in the Danish context, despite relatively generous welfare reimbursement schemes. An overall greater understanding of the qualitative and quantitative processes within families experiencing poor child health is needed in order to facilitate policymakers to expand the current focus on external challenges to include the needs related to internal stressors within the family.

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Loft, L. T. G. (2011). Child health and parental relationships: Examining relationship termination among Danish parents with and without a child with disabilities or chronic illness. International Journal of Sociology, 41(1), 27-47.

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