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Children with divorced parents date earlier

29 February 2012

Teenagers who feel rejected by their parents are more likely to seek affection from a boyfriend or girlfriend. They begin dating earlier than teenagers who have a warm relationship with their parents. Teenagers with divorced parents also begin looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend sooner,  according to research by sociologist Katya Ivanova. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 5 March 2012.

For her research, Ivanova studied data on over 2000 teenagers gathered in the Dutch TRAILS project, as well as data from the Swedish Solna study. Questionnaires were used to gather information on the relationship between teenagers and parents and on dating behaviour. Teenagers who feel that they are treated in unfriendly fashion or feel unfairly punished by their parents turn out to begin dating earlier than teenagers who have a warm relationship with their parents. Ivanova: ‘We haven’t found a full explanation yet but we think that teenagers seek compensation for the warmth they miss at home.’

Divorced parents

Ivanova also established that teenagers with divorced parents also begin looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend earlier,  although here children’s age is a factor. If parents divorce before the child has turned 11, or when the child is over 13, this has little impact on dating behaviour. The period between 11 and 13 is when parents divorcing has a large effect. Ivanova: ‘This is the stage where teenagers are undergoing rapid development, both physically and mentally, and they are less capable of dealing with changes in their lives. They seem to tend to seek solace or affirmation outside the home sooner, is our thinking.’

Parental supervision

A remarkable finding is that Dutch teenagers from single-parent families begin dating later than children from two-parent families. Ivanova: ‘Previous American research showed that children growing up with either their mother or their father tended to have romantic experiences earlier. The explanation could be that many American parents, including single ones, work full time. This means that there is less parental supervision and that children begin experimenting with relationships sooner. Working part-time is more common in the Netherlands, which means teenagers are home alone less often.’

Early experiences colour later life

And finally, Ivanova discovered that if children have a bad relationship with their parents, or if parents have a bad relationship with each other, the chances that such children will grow up to be unhappy in their relationships are greater. ‘These findings show how important our experiences during youth are for our later life. We often think that we take independent decisions as grown-ups, for example in relationships. But many of our choices are strongly coloured by what we experience in our youth.’

Not inevitable

Ivanova’s explanation for the connection found is that if children do not learn how to live harmoniously with someone else and how to resolve conflicts from their parents, they will be less able to do so themselves. But the effects of youth experiences are not completely inevitable, she discovered. ‘If teenagers have positive experiences with their peers, this can compensate for lack of warmth they felt at home at an earlier age, we found out. This finding from my research is a hopeful one.’

Curriculum Vitae

Katya Ivanova (Bulgaria, 1982) studied psychology and political sciences in the US and developmental psychology in Utrecht. She conducted her PhD research at the department of Sociology of the University of Groningen, within the ICS research school. Her supervisors were Prof. Melinda Mills and Prof. René Veenstra. Ivanova is now working as a postdoc researcher at Tilburg University (UvT). The title of her thesis is ‘From parents to partners: The impact of family on romantic relationships in adolescence and emerging adulthood’.

Note for the press

Katya Ivanova, tel. 013-4663575 (UvT), e-mail:


Last modified:15 September 2017 3.29 p.m.
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