ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - A new Washington University study is taking a closer look at the emotional toll divorce has on children, as some studies suggest the divorce rate nationwide grew 34 percent in 2020.

The Child Affect and Resilience to Experiences study marks the fist study to look at changes in the brain and biological system of children experiencing parental divorce, separation or conflict. In doing so, researchers study how the child's brain and biological system interacts with supportive caregiving during the stressful event, such as a divorce. Researchers believe some children who experience parental divorce are more likely to struggle with mental health problems when they get older.

"If we can identify what would be the early precursors to mental health struggles when families are going through a divorce, we may be able through this study to suggest treatment options so we can intervene much more early in these families," said Dr. Susan Perlman, a Washington University Associate Professor of Psychiatry.

The university is partnering with Kids In The Middle, a local non-profit that offers counseling, education and support to families experiencing separation or divorce. Katy Walter, CEO of Kids in the Middle, said early intervention is key to ensuring children develop typically and avoid the potential for mental health problems as adolescents or adults.

"We've definitely seen an increase in separation and divorce within the pandemic," she said.  "An increase in school problems, relationship problems, mental illness, depression, anxiety all of those things are things we will see left with out treatment can be be a problem in their adult lives."

Children are able to meet one-on-one with counselors to talk through any emotions they may be experiencing as a result of parental conflict. In doing so, children are given an outlet to express themselves, Walter said.

Shannon Sides and her 6-year-old daughter, Finley, are taking part in Perlman's study.  Sides finalized her divorce in September 2021 and said her biggest concern remains her children.

"When we were going through the divorce, the biggest thing on my mind was how is it going to effect my kids," she said.

She said the study is fun for her daughter, where she gets to color, do art activities and play games. Most importantly, she gets to spend one-on-one time with her mom.

"I've really enjoyed the time we get to spend together," Sides said. "It's also served as a means of opening up communication and allowing us to talk about some of the factors of divorce."

Children and their parents make several visits to the lab and take part in an MRI. Brain activity is also monitored during activities for researchers to learn more about interactions with parental figures. The study then follows the child for a year and a half, detailing emotional and biological changes in response to the divorce.

"A lot of times when we switch from one parent to the other, she'll be really quiet and I'll say, 'Finley what's wrong?' And she'll say, 'I'm just being quiet right now.' So I think it is hard when we switch from one parent to the next," Sides said.

The National Institute of Health awarded Perlman the five-year grant in September 2020. Perlman said around 80 families are currently enrolled in the study, but more are needed.

Families can be divorced or separated within the last year, but married families are also encouraged to take part in the control group. Children must be between the ages of four and seven.

If interested, call the Laboratory For Child Brain Development at 314-273-8430.

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