Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Divorce and Child Well-Being: What Research Tells Us

by Amy

Probably one of the most commonly asked questions of child development and family studies researchers is, "What is the effect of divorce on kids?" This is a topic that hits home for many of us. If your family hasn't experienced divorce, you probably know someone in your extended family or friends that has experienced it. Luckily, there has been a growing body of research addressing this issue over the past 30-40 years. We have learned a lot, but as with most research of this kind, the answers are not clear cut. Here's a little of what we know:

First, some statistics:
  • Although the divorce rate has declined slightly since 1979, still about 45% of marriages end in divorce
  • These divorces involve over 1 million children
  • 84% of children reside with mother following divorce
  • Marriage remains popular—65% of women and 75% of men remarry (divorce rates in remarriages are slightly higher than first marriages)
  • On average, children of divorced parents have more adjustment problems than children of non-divorced parents
  • However, the correlations are not very strong (.15 -.25, with 1.0 being a perfect correlation)
What this means and what it does not mean:
  • It doesn’t mean that if you (or your children) experienced divorce, you (or they) will inevitably have adjustment problems (findings do not generalize to the individual level)
  • It doesn’t mean that divorce is inconsequential for children
  • It does mean that although the majority of children of divorce will not experience adjustment problems, they are at higher risk for doing so
So, now that we know there is a connection between divorce and children being at greater risk for adjustment problems, the question is, "Why is there this connection?" Is the conflict between the parents that often precedes divorce the source of the problem for kids? Or is it the act of divorce itself; that is, the physical separation of the family?

Fortunately two well-known researchers addressed this topic in a research article several years ago. They analyzed many different studies of the effects of divorce on children and compiled the findings into one article.
These authors focused on three main theoretical explanations for why there is a link between divorce and children's adjustment problems:

1. Parental absence. After divorce, contact with non-custodial parent often lessens. Additionally, the custodial parent has less time/energy due to labor force participation.
  • As a result, children may receive less monitoring, attention, and help and this, in turn, may lead to academic problems, low-self-esteem, misbehavior
2. Economic disadvantage. Divorce typically leads to decline in standard of living because mothers are more likely to get custody and women many times make less money than men. Additionally many families go from two incomes prior to divorce to just one income after divorce.
  • Lack of economic resources may lead to poorer nutrition, health, less effective schools, fewer lessons, educational toys, etc.
3. Family conflict. Stress and conflict that coexist with divorce create a less than optimal environment for children; stress makes parents less effective in dealing with children.
  • Divorce affects kids not because of structure change but because of accompanying conflict—stress affects parenting and kids may be drawn into conflict
The overall findings of the study included:
  • Children of divorce do experience lower levels of well-being than children of intact families, however, the differences aren't huge
  • Very few differences by sex of the child
  • Largest differences between families seen in elementary and high school age children
I won't go into all the evidence for each of the three theories, but the study showed most support for theory #3 Family Conflict.
  • First, children in high-conflict intact families exhibited worse well-being than those in low-conflict intact families.
  • Second, and most importantly, children in high-conflict intact families also exhibited worse well-being than those in divorced families
Thus, it seems most likely that the conflict between parents (that often accompanies divorce) is what has the most impact on children's well-being, not the physical act of the divorce.
What does this mean?
  • If divorce would diminish family conflict and positive parenting can be maintained, children from divorced families will likely be well-adjusted
  • It seems the key, as is the case with many family changes, is for parents to maintain positive interactions with their children. This is often difficult in divorce as the stress of the situation makes parents more likely to be short-tempered and edgy. If positive parenting can be prioritized, however, children from divorced families can fare well.
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