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Wash U study aims to find out how divorce affects young children

The WashU study is currently recruiting participants.
Kat Grigg
The Wash U study is currently recruiting participants.

When Shannon Sides was finalizing her divorce in September 2021, she was concerned about how it would affect her two young children. She said her 6-year-old daughter is already having trouble with transitioning between the two homes.

“She asked me recently if people who have gotten divorced ever get back together,” Sides said. “I know that she still really misses when her dad and I were together. So that really makes me sad for her.”

Sides and her daughter are now participants in a new study at Washington University to examine how divorce and high parent conflict affects kids ages 4 to 7. It’s the first study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to look at the psychiatric toll of divorce on children. Susan Perlman, an associate professor of psychiatry, is leading the study.

“There aren't really any direct interventions for children experiencing this type of familial stressor,” Perlman said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But if we find that there are specific ways of measuring biological stress, maybe we could come up with interventions to intervene earlier.”

The team plans to recruit 225 children whose parents are divorced or have high levels of conflict. They have 100 enrolled so far. The study pays up to $570 per participant if people complete the year-and-a-half commitment for the study. It also pays for transportation and provides child care, if needed.

New study aims to find out how divorce affects young children

The team is looking at brain imaging to determine if strong parent relationships protect children against the biological effects of stress and any future mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

“We've done a lot of research and maltreatment and poverty and those kinds of stressors,” Perlman said. “But I'm starting to get more interested in very common stressors.”

On top of brain scans, the researchers are taking saliva and hair follicle samples to measure cortisol, a stress hormone.

“What's really cool is that [cortisol] is stored in the hair follicle,” Perlman said. “So as long as your hair is, we can go back in time and see how much stress you had at any one given moment.”

The researchers also use functional near-infrared spectroscopy — imaging using light — to study the participants’ cortisol levels.

“It's safe and painless. It's like shining a flashlight at your head,” Perlman said. “And we measure the amount of light going in, and the amount of light coming out. And that tells us about where the blood flow is in the brain.”

Sides said it has been a positive experience for her young daughter because researchers don’t ask child participants any questions about the divorce. Kids even get a framed picture of their brain.

“It's not invasive at all,” Sides said. “She loves doing it. And honestly, I think when couples decide to get divorced, I would assume that other parents in my situation are concerned about how it's going to affect their kids.”

If you’re interested in participating in the study, you can text 314-626-4467 or email lcbd@wustl.edu. For more information, go to childbrainlab.com.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.