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Divorce and Children

As a child, there are many things that affect a view, memory, opinion, or attitude. Children have many of their own daily struggles to cope with, as peer pressures are an example. As an adult, we sometimes forget what it is like to be a child dealing with some of the childhood pressures. Many parents do not realize how something like divorce could possibly affect their children as much as it does themselves. As the case may be, children are strongly affected by divorce. Some react differently than do others, but all experience some kind of emotional change.

Exposure to a highly stressful major life change event on children, which may overwhelm children’s coping capacity, and thus compromising favorable adjustments (Garmezy, Masten, & Tellegen, 1984; Gersten, Langner, Eisenberg, & Simcha-Fagan, 1977; Rutter, 1983). Research has indicated that this is particularly true for children in the circumstances surrounding parental divorce, and in the immediate aftermath (see reviews by Emery, 1982, 1988; Hetherington & Camara, 1984).

Compared to children of intact families, many children of recently divorced families are reported to demonstrate less social competence, more behavioral problems, more psychological distress, and more learning deficits (Amato & Keith, 1991a; Hetherington, 1972; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1979, 1982; Peterson & Zill, 1983, 1986; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980), and are over-represented in referrals to clinical services (Guidubaldi, Perry, & Cleminshaw, 1984; Kalter, 1977).

Further, an accumulating body of evidence from longitudinal studies of divorce supports continuity of negative affects beyond the 2-year postdivorce crisis period in a substantial minority of children and adolescents (Guidubaldi & Perry, 1984, 1985; Hetherington & Anderson, 1987; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985, 1987, 1991), as well as the reemergence or emergence of problematic behavior in adolescents who had previously recovered from or adjusted well to parental divorce (Hetherington, 1991a).

Moreover, reports of long-term negative outcomes in offspring beyond the adolescent period suggest that the ramifications of parental divorce on adult behavior may be even more deleterious than those on child behavior (Amato & Keith, 1991b; Zill, Morrison, & Coiro, 1993). The evidence appears to be quite convincing that dissolution of two-parent families, though it may benefit spouses in some respects (Hetherington, 1993), may have farreaching adverse effects for many children.

The divorce and family systems literatures indicate that negative family processes may be more important predictors of poor adjustment in children than family structure (Baumrind, 1991a. 1991b; O’Leary & Emery, 1984). Interparental conflict, for example, is associated with adjustment disturbances in children in both divorced and nondivorced families (Camara & Resnick, 1988; Johnston, Campbell, & Mayes, 1985; Peterson & Zill, 1986; Reid & Crisafulli, 1990), and is considered to be a critical mediator of divorce effects in children and adolescents (Atkeson, Forehand, & Rickard, 1982; Emery, 1982; Forehand, Long, & Brody, 1988; Luepnitz, 1979).

In addition, the stress associated with shifting family roles and relationships in newly divorce families contribute to a breakdown in effective parenting practices, which in turn influences adjustment outcomes in children. Decreased levels of warmth, support, tolerance, control, and monitoring, and increased levels of punitive erratic discipline among recently divorced mothers have been related to problematic adjustment in children (Bray, 1990; Brody & Forehand, 1988; Maccoby, Buchanan, Mnookin, & Dornbusch, 1993).

Furthermore, long-term studies of divorce suggest that negative family processes and concomitant stressors may be in operation well after the divorce has occurred, and may become exacerbated when offspring enter adolescence (Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington & Anderson, 1987; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992). Coping with family stressors of such a demanding nature, particularly over an extended time period, may easily tax or exceed the cognitive and behavioral resources that are available to children (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the capacity to cope with and adjust to a stressful life circumstance such as divorce may be even further undermined among those children with difficult temperaments or histories of behavioral or emotional problems (Caspi, Elder, & Herbener, 1990; Hetherington, 1991b; Rutter, 1987). To test this supposition, the role played by preexisting (i. e. , predivorce) individual characteristics such as temperament on children’s responses to divorce needs to be examined, thus advancing a multiple-risk interaction model of adjustment outcomes in children.

This same risk model may also be applied to investigate whether divorce affects the course of psychopathology already present in children from a developmental trajectory perspective. One of the pathways to later disturbance has been linked to earlier temperament difficulties and/or problematic adjustments in childhood (Cohen & Brook, 1987; Farrington, Loeber, & Van Kammen, 1990; Mannuzza et al. 1991; Olweus, 1980), suggesting a vulnerability for future disorders among already troubled children. For example, it has been found that a childhood diagnosis of attention deficit disorder persisted in 40% of probands at age 18, and increased the risk of antisocial and conduct disorder diagnosis by almost five times. However, while childhood disorder was clearly a risk for later disturbance, the alternative perspective is that stability of diagnosis was not observed in over half the probands.

Further, findings from other studies investigating the persistence of childhood hyperactivity and deficits in attention span and impulse control are more equivocal, and indicate more modest relationships in adolescence and adulthood (see review by Klein & Mannuzza, 1991). Thomas and Chess (1980) found that the continuity of childhood behavioral adjustment difficulties may be altered by the family’s response to the developing child, and suggested that earlier problems per se are not sufficient to predict later maladjustments.

Such observations reflect an interactionalist model of human development whereby individual characteristics interact with psychosocial features of the environment, and as a result are modified (Plomin, 1993; Thomas & Chess, 1980). From a developmental trajectory framework, it is the moderating role played by divorce on the risk of disturbance among already vulnerable children that is at issue. There is some evidence that children whose parents eventually divorce exhibit higher levels of problematic behavior prior to divorce than children whose families remain intact (Block, Block, & Gjerde, 1986).

The implication is that, in marriages which eventually dissolve, adverse family processes such as parental conflict or disrupted childrearing (most likely due to preoccupation with marital problems) are in evidence before marital dissolution and precipitate predivorce adjustment problems in children. In order to rule out the possible contaminating effects of divorce-related family processes on children’s adjustment prior to divorce (as demonstrated by Block and colleagues), predivorce differences in child temperament-adjustment between children of families who remained intact versus children of families who divorced were examined.

Almost one-third of divorced custodial mothers remarries, and because the transition into a stepfamily is a major life change with its own complex set of stressors to which children of divorce are often exposed, the outcomes as a function of the independent and moderating effects of both single custodial mother family status and stepfamily status are examined. Also considered are the outcomes to be long-term in that they were measured 8 years after temperament was observed in 100% of the samples, and 4 or more years postdivorce in 68% of the samples (and 2 or more years postdivorce in 82% of the samples).

As time since divorce could not be kept constant for an entire sample, it was included as a control variable in all analyses where family status effects were tested (Bray, 1988; Hetherington, 1987). Of 976 families interviewed in 1975, 805 had biological mothers and fathers and were maritally intact. These families comprised the eligible sample for a current study. In 1983 when the children were ages 9 to 18, 699 or 86. 8% of the 1975 eligible families were reinterviewed.

Youngest children from poor urban families were slightly more likely to be lost; otherwise, demographic characteristics closely matched those of the 1975 eligible sample as tested by chi-square analyses. Of those reinterviewed, 648 (92. 7%) of the 699 families fulfilled study criteria for retention in the current study; 508 families had remained married (intact families), 99 had divorced or separated with single mothers retaining custody of the study children (single custodial mother or SCM families), and 41 had divorced with custodial mothers remarrying (stepfamilies).

The remaining 51 families were eliminated because the mothers were no longer living with the children (21), the mothers had been widowed (13), the mothers had obtained more than one divorce (6), the fathers were institutionalized (6), or data were incomplete (5). Of the 140 divorced families, 11 separated or divorced within 1 year after the 1975 assessment and 129 (92%) separated or divorced 1 or more years after the 1975 assessment.

Average interval between the 1975 assessment and separation or divorce was 3 1/2 years. By mapping the nature of stresses that divorce creates for children, we can attempts to fill the gap left by the absence of societal expectations in this area. The division of stresses into those stemming from environmental versus internal sources not only makes the divorce experience for children more understandable, but also provides specific strategies for alleviating the pain divorce brings for so many youngsters.

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