Impact of Parental Divorce

The impact of divorce on children has produced two competing points of view:

  • Some experts suggest that children from divorced families are maladjusted because of the divorce.
  • Others feel that divorce is a benign event for children, and can perhaps even benefit them.
  • In reality, children from divorced families, like children from intact families, exhibit a  range of outcomes, from well-adjusted to exhibiting significant and chronic problems.

A small number of children will experience significant adjustment problems after a divorce. However, parental divorce is associated with an increased risk of clinically significant behavioral problems.  Thus, in making recommendations to parents who are divorced or contemplating divorce, it can be most helpful to provide education about how to enhance their children’s resilience in response to the divorce.

Co-parenting:

  • One of the most stressful aspects of divorce, as rated by children, is conflict between their parents. (1)
  • High parental conflict –whether parents are separated or the family is intact–is associated wtih child maladjustment (2)
  • Children in divorced families, where the parents have low levels of conflict are actually better adjusted than children in intact families with high levels of conflict. (3)
  • Conflict that is hostile, aggressive, lacks a resolution, and is related to the child is more upsetting to children, but this is unfortunately often the case. Parents often divorce after unsuccessful attempts to resolve spousal conflict, and after a divorce, much of the conflict is related to issues of custody and visitation.  This is further complicated when parents express their anger at their former spouse through the issues related to the child.
  • A child who perceives that they are caught between their parents appears to be the factor that most accounts for associations between parental conflict and children’s adjustment problems after divorce. (4)

Thus, it is important that divorced parents co-parent as cooperatively as possible and avoid placing their child in the middle. Children should not be made to felt that they must choose between their parents. This includes avoiding the following behaviors:

  • disparaging the ex-spouse in front of the child
  • using a child to pass messages to the other spouse
  • questioning the child about the other parents’ life
  • making the child feel uncomfortable about one parent while the other is present

Relationships between parent and child:

  • The relationship between a child and his or her parents are inevitably changed by divorce.
  • Parents find a change in their roles and responsibilities. Some parents find that they have more time to spend with their children, while most find that they have to work longer hours, and carry a greater proportion of household responsibilities as well.
  • Most states encourage or support joint custody, but many children still spend the majority of time in one parents’ household.
  • There have been studies about the frequency of contact with the nonresidential parent; half of these suggest that contact with the nonresidential parent is associated with increased child well-being, and half did not. Clearly more research is needed, and the question is multivariate and complex.
  • Disruptions in the relationship between a child and his or her parent can be distressing. Children benefit from stable, supportive relationships with their parents during and after divorce. (5)
  • During a divorce, it can be a challenge for a parent to be sensitive and responsive to their child, since the parents may be overwhelmed by the practical and emotional issues they are dealing with themselves.
  • At the same time that parents are struggling with adapting to separation and divorce, their children may become more challenging to parent, exhibiting increased emotional and behavioral problems in response to adapting to the divorce.
  • Divorce does not necessarily impact the parent-child relationship in a negative way. Heterhington et al 1982) Studies have found that half of divorced mother and a quarter of divorced fathers reported improved relationships with their children.

Life Stressors:

  • Children may be challenged in adapting to new daily routines after a divorce, including shifting from one house to another, or even moving to a new neighborhood or school.
  • Some children may lose friends, supportive adults, and familiar surroundings that can challenge their abilities to adapt to all of the changes.
  • Research supports the hypothesis that a greater number of life changes–whether positive or negative– is associated with poorer academic, behavioral, and personal adjustement.
  • Folowing divorce, one of the most significant changes a child may experience is a decline in the family’s financial state. This financial decline can lead to the need to move to less expensive neighborhoods, schools of lesser quality, and fewer funds for involvement in sports, lessons, and other extracurricular activities.
  • Differences between children from intact and divorced families were reduced after correcting for family income, even several years later, but that the financial issue did not account for the entire difference between children from intact and divorced families. (6)

Personal characteristics:

  • The impact of stressful events will also be affected by how a person perceives and responds to those events.
  • It has long been believed that a child’s  fear of abandonment, self-blame, and hopes for reconciliation are common responses to divorce that are associated wtih increased anxiety and depression, but these factors  have inconsistently been correlated to parental and teacher ratings of children’s adjustment.
  • When studied separately,over half of the 4th to 8th graders whose parents had been separated an average of 4 years expressed the belief that their parents would reunite, and indicated fears of abandonment. Only the fear of abandonment was correlated with child and parent reports of adjustment.  In younger children, there was no relationship between adjustment and these problematic beliefs about divorce. (7)
  • There is inconsistent support for the idea that children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, and most studies that report increased self-blame have assessed chidlren closer in proximity to the time of the divorce. (8)
  • Self-blame for the divorce was more likely to occur when children eflt cuaght between their parents, or when they were perceived as trying to play one parent off of the other.
  • Children with an optimistic perspective tended to have fewer issues with adjustment to divorce than those with a tendency toward negative or distorted thinking, such as catastrophizing, overgeneralizng and personalizing. (9)
  • Having a sense of internal locus of control, as opposed to needing external structure for self-management, was also correlated wtih improved adjustment after divorce. (10)
  • Children with problem-focused and emotion-focused coping techniques were also better able to adapt and regulate their emotions and behaviors after parental divorce. (11)
  • Children who try to cope with  stressors of the divorce by avoiding thinking about it tend to adjust more poorly (12)

After divorce, the conflict between parents, and the child’s perception of being caught between them, appear to be the most strongly predictive factors in a child’s adjustment to divorce, but the situation is more complex than that; with protective factors such as positive relationships with one or both parents,  and the child’s use of coping resources can buffer the negative impact of these factors.

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