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The Effects of Divorce on Children’s Well-Being

The body of research investigating divorce and its effects on children continues to grow. Due to high divorce rates, the effects of divorce on children are of interest to social scientists, mental health professionals, policy makers, and the general public. To date, one of the most influential works on the topic of children and divorce is Amato and Keith’s 1991 article “Parental Divorce and the well-being of Children: A Meta-Analysis” in which they report that children of divorced parents are disadvantaged in areas of psychological adjustment, well-being, academic achievement, and behavioral health.

The divorce process for children is the psychological equivalent of “lifting a hundred-pound weight over the head”. The divorce process has also been described as an experience of disorganization and reorganization that requires children to adjust to changes in their day-to-day lives. Children of divorced families carry the pain of divorce with them through the years. The absence of significant measures on common measures of psychological problems is not an indication that children are not affected by the divorce of their parents. Despite a lack of definitive evidence that divorce has negative effects on children, researchers continue to identify for empirical research, aspects of divorce that adversely affect children. Researchers are also concerned with the areas of children’s lives that are overwhelmed by these particular aspects of divorce. One observation among researchers is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between parental conflict and child well-being. It seems that when the level of discord between parents prior to divorce is low; divorce is unexpected and harder for the child to understand and therefore is more traumatic. Conversely, increased family conflict, rather than divorce, holds negative consequences for children. Not all distress is due to divorce but may also be due to the stressors of divorce such as parental conflict. This paradox represents the need for ongoing research on specific aspects of divorce such as parental conflict.

Psychological adjustment of the custodial mother is a factor of divorce that has also been investigated. A common pattern among single custodial mothers is depression, which poor parenting practices such as diminished affection, decreased positive involvement, increased irritability, punitiveness, and unpredictable, erratic discipline practices are attributed to. Additional factors that have been identified for empirical study on the topic of divorce and child well-being include level of involvement of the non-custodial parent, mother attribute, and changes in economic status.

Researchers have also identified several indicators of child well-being to test the effects of each divorce factor. Such factors include academic achievement (standardized tests, grades, teachers’ or parents’ ratings of school achievement, dropping out of high school), conduct (misbehavior, aggression, delinquency), self-concept (self-esteem, self-efficacy), social relations (popularity, cooperativeness, quality of peer relations), and psychological and emotional adjustment (depression, anxiety, general happiness). For the purposes of the present research, focus will be placed on psychological and emotional adjustment, how it has been defined and measured, and how it has been found to be impacted by divorce.

In an experiment by Kasen, Cohen, Brook and Hartmark (1996), psychological well-being was termed psychopathology and was measured in terms of three psychiatric disorders; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder. The three disorders were measured by obtaining responses to the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (DISC-1) from the mother and child. The DSM-III-R criteria were used to make diagnoses based on the responses on the DISC-1. The researchers used syndrome scales of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder based on relevant items to aid in diagnosing each disorder. A diagnosis was given to children who met DSM-III-R criteria and who had scaled scores of more than 1 standard deviation above the population mean. The results of this study showed that boys in single-custodial-mother homes were over five times more likely to suffer from Major Depressive Disorder than were boys from intact families. Girls however, were no more at risk for major depressive disorder than were girls of intact families. Children living with a single custodial mother were almost two times more at risk for Overanxiety Disorder and almost three times more at risk for Separation Anxiety Disorder than children with continuously married parents. In general, this study found that compared to boys who have not experienced divorce, boys living with a single custodial mother were at a significant greater risk for all three of the psychopathology measures.

Variables of divorce such as child’s early development and environment, mother attributes (e.g., years of education and age at the time of her first marriage), family circumstances (e.g. income), and changes coinciding with disruption (i.e., no longer owning a home and no longer having more than $5 hundred in savings and assets). Child’s early development and environment were assessed using various measures. The Behavior Problems Index (BPI), which measures mothers’ reports of the frequency and types of behavior problems, was used. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R) was used to measure receptive vocabulary knowledge of orally presented words. In addition, the child’s weight at birth, birth order, measures of limiting health factors, age and ethnicity, were factored. Mothers’ attributes measures included years of education completed, score on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), age at first marriage, and the number of children she had. Family circumstances were measured by accounting for family income for the previous year and indicators of material assets such as whether they own a house and whether they have assets totaling $5 hundred or more. The amount of time that children spent in poverty during the previous five years was also noted.

It is reasonable to hypothesize two things. The first is that there are specific aspects of the divorce process that are more likely to cause difficulty for children than others. Furthermore, it would not be unreasonable to assume that if parents were aware of these factors and were able to control them, lessen their impact, or eliminate them altogether; the negative effects of divorce on children could be significantly lessened. The second hypothesis that could be argued is that research has yet to pinpoint exactly what the primary negative factors of divorce are for children and exactly how they affect children’s lives.

The focus of this report was limited to measures of psychological well-being and factors of divorce that have been studied with regard to the well-being of children. Important factors such as sample sizes and characteristics, exact statistics for each outcome and procedural methods were beyond the scope of this article. These factors must be kept in mind when forming opinions based on simplistic reporting of the studies’ findings. The purpose of this article is merely to familiarize the reader with some of the considerations researchers have taken in their approaches to research on this topic.

As stated previously, the evidence based on research in this area is far from conclusive. There is a need for more cross-cultural research on divorce. Also, direct causal relationships have not yet been established between factors of divorce and child outcomes. For example, if depression in single custodial mothers is positively correlated with behavior problems in adolescent males, is that due to the mother’s depression or is it due to the mother’s neglect of her son due to the depression? There are numerous similar examples. These relationships remain unclear. Some research has included pre-divorce factors as control variables whereas other research has not. Theoretical frameworks would help to consolidate the research and provide direction for future research. They would also aid researchers and practitioners evaluate previous research. Clinicians often focus on the weaknesses of children trying to adapt to divorce and may minimize their strengths in coping. Conversely, researchers often focus on children’s strengths and minimize more subtle signs of distress. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assert that even though a lack of conclusive evidence exists, practitioners can still be proactive in helping to minimize the harmful effects of parental divorce on children.

Kyle Kornbau is a Liscensed Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor that owns and is a therapist at Stonebridge Counseling. Kyle has a MA in psychology from North Carolina Central University. Stonebridge Counseling ( http://www.SBcounseling.com ) is a professional counseling practice located in Apex, NC and serves adults, Adolescents and children for various psychological issues. If you live in the greater Raleigh, Cary, Holly Springs area and are in search for a therapist, call Stonebridge Counseling at 919-434-6398 or e-mail info@SBcounseling.com

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