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Diverging Destinies: Introducing the Role of Social Environment and Genetic Sensitivity in the Effects of Family Instability

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - DIVERGE (Diverging Destinies: Introducing the Role of Social Environment and Genetic Sensitivity in the Effects of Family Instability)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-06-30

Today a substantial share of children experiences their parents to separate or divorce, to re-partner with someone new, and potentially have children with this new partner. Whereas we know that such family instability has detrimental consequences for children’s behavior and mental health, it remains unclear the degree to which these negative effects are unevenly distributed. To disentangle this question, this project investigates the role of social environment and genetic sensitivity in the effects of family instability from a cross-disciplinary perspective.
The project used new and unique data and combined insights from the social and the biological sciences in order to advance knowledge on three connected issues:
1. Do negative effects of family instability circumstances vary for children born into different family structures, and among children experiencing more family instability circumstances during childhood?
2. Are negative effects family instability augmented among children with fewer resources available in their social environment?
3. Are negative effects of family instability concentrated among children with greater genetic sensitivity?
Based on the research undertaken by this project, we can conclude that children born into more fragile family structures, such as growing up without a residential father figure or experiencing spells of significant poverty, experience vastly greater effects relative to their peers born into more stable family structures. Likewise, negative effects of family instability are augmented among children with fewer resources available in their social environment. This latter finding also have spill-over effects into childrens other significant environments, including their school environment. Chidlren with fewer socio-economic resources available report significantly poorer social and psychological wellbeing also at school. Indeed, genetic sensitivity plays a crusial role too. Although differential susceptability may not apply evenly across different health outcomes and distributions, it was found that children with genetic predispositions and fewer resources available were more likely to experience augmented negative health effects.
It is important to improve our understanding of heterogeneity in effects of resources available in the family environment because it allows us to more effectively address barriers to children’s’ development and families’ social mobility and improved health outcomes. Taken together, the results from this project can help explain why some children overcome the experience of social disadvantage while others don’t. Thereby this project provides a framework for how to better tailor interventions and programs serving children and families, and thus reduce children’s negative outcomes.
This report covers the final 12 months of the project. The work performed includes the completion of all milestones and deliverables:
4 network meetings
5 conference participations
3 media entries
5 research articles submitted for peer-review

In addition to the research and dissemination objectives, all expected objectives pertaining to the researcher's re-integration at her home institution have also been successfully completed. These included:
Continued international network
Participation in regular faculty meetings
Re-engage with WIM research group
Lecture at department
Engage with early career scholars
Present at department conference
Engage with other departments/interdisciplinary work
Secure continued funding for my unique area of research
Plan for future career at the department
Engage with senior faculty

The successful completion of the objectives pertaining to pertaining to the researcher's re-integration at her home institution has:
(i) added to my continued development as an independent mature scholar fully integrated at University of Copenhagen's Department of Sociology
(ii) ensured my continued active engagement with state-of-the-art research and new developments within the field and secured funding for a new large-scale 5-year interdiciplinary research project (CEHA)
(iii) resulted in a clearly laid out career path
In addition to the objectives pertaining to advancement of knowledge, transfer of knowledge, and the quality of hosting arrangements described above, a strong commitment to make science and research results accessible to all relevant actors has allowed for a continued and optimal exploitation of the results in DIVERGE and progress beyond the expected state-of-the-art. Such activities have so far included:
(i) Presentation DIVERGE research at a national Danish parliamentary hearing on early intervention and children’s health
(ii) Presentation of Diverge at a largescale national conference on children’s wellbeing targeted NGOs, journalists, and politicians.
(iii) Invited member of an additional large international network committed to produce policy relevant research aimed at reducing inequality in children’s health (’Child Well-Being: Advancing Our Understanding of Inequalities in Child Development
through Interdisciplinary and International Research)

The expected results until the end of the project includes the completion of the remaining planned research articles, which are all currently in progress and advancing as expected. During the remaining 12 moths of DIVERGE, I will also continue to develop as an independent mature scholar. My successful re-integration at UCPH is ensured by participation department seminars and meetings, my membership of the research group ‘Welfare, Inequality, and Mobility’, as well as my interaction with senior faculty and cross-disciplinary collaborations. I will be affiliated with UCPH’s Faculty of Health and Medical Science and have the opportunity to partake in seminars and meetings at this Faculty too. The research network I contributed to form will continue its work, and I will stay a member of the additional international network as well as seek out additional collaborations and dissemination opportunities within the European context. Once DIVERGE concludes, there are concrete plans in place for teaching as well as continuation of my research at UCPH.

The research findings of DIVERGE so far have significant potential policy implications because the results suggest a need to formulate assistance policies of a more permanent character, and to include adult support for single parents and families of children in poor health. To implement such policies in the future will likely lead to reduced societal socio-economic costs as children will enter adolescent and adulthood being less vulnerable. The research conducted within DIVERGE also point to a need to apply a more nuanced methodological approach when evaluating interventions related to children’s health outcomes. This also applies to the evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of given programs and interventions.

With regard to wider societal implications of DIVERGE, the extended communication with policymakers and stakeholders as well as outreach to the general public throughout the life time of DIVERGE, has not only the potential to contribute knowledge on how to tailor more effective and supportive interventions, but can likely also add to a better-informed dialogue
Image used in connection with DIVERGE. Source: Lisbeth Loft