The structure of the nuclear family in the twenty-first century is going through some significant changes which raises a number of specific areas of concern. When a parental relationship fails in a family it is not just the lives of the parents that are changed; effects of the separation appear to have significant consequences on the children involved (Cohen & Finzi-Dottan, 2005; Nicholson, Fergusson, & Horwood, 1999; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001).
Children appear to respond differently to divorce and parental separation. Although some studies appear to indicate that negative affects displayed in children will alleviate over time, other research seems to suggest that problematic behaviours and poor emotional adjustment may persist throughout a person’s lifetime (Cohen & Finzi-Dottan, 2005).
The common factor throughout current research though, suggests that children from divorced families frequently display higher levels of behavioural and adjustment problems than children from intact families (Bryner, 2001; Kelly, 2000; Lengua, Wolchik, Sandler, & West, 2000; Nielsen, 1999; Wolchik et al., 2002).
This article will look at research relating to the effects that parental divorce and separation has on the adjustment and wellbeing of children.
In 1980, the passing of the Family Proceedings act in New Zealand allowed the dissolution of marriage based on the grounds of irreconcilable difference. Since then New Zealand’s divorce rate has followed a steady upward trend and the divorce rate in 2004 was recorded as 13.2 divorces per 1000 existing marriages. This rate of divorce is comparable with Australia, which recorded 13.1 in 2001, and with England and Wales, which recorded a rate of 14.0 in 2003.
As well as divorce rates increasing, de facto relationships are becoming more common. In 2001 the figure for adults involved in de facto unions had increased to around one in three couples. These figures imply that relationships between parents appear less stable than in past times and children are frequently affected by these family transitions.
In 2004 there were approximately 31000 babies born to married parents and 26000 born to unmarried parents. In 2004, forty percent of all marriages that were dissolved involved families that had children under the age of 17 years old. There are no figures available to reflect the number of children affected by de facto relationships ending (Statistics New Zealand, 2006). These figures tell us that more children than ever before are experiencing their parents divorcing or separating.
Children of divorce frequently display adverse problems such as lower academic grades and mental health problems (Wolchik et al., 2002). They are at increased risk of criminal offending, showing conduct problems, suffering from alcohol and substance abuse, and developing mood disorders (Fergusson & Horwood, 2001; Nicholson et al., 1999). Precocious sexual behaviour and multiple sexual partners are also commonly seen (Bryner, 2001). Marriages in which children witnessed high levels of parental conflict also showed those children developing higher levels of depression and other psychological disorders as young adults (Kelly, 2000).
For the last few decades it has been thought that experiencing a divorce has a direct negative impact on a child. In previous generations many parents stayed together despite enduring loveless marriages in the belief that it was in the best interests of the children.
Newer findings however, indicate that it is not divorce itself that causes problems for children, but antecedental problems existing in the marriage prior to separation. In some studies approximately half of the behavioural problems reported in school age boys, and slightly less in girls, were clearly detectable up to four years before the parental relationship ended (Bryner, 2001).
It is not divorce itself that causes problems for children, but antecedental problems existing in the marriage prior to separation
Other findings from the past decade show that the most important predictor of child adjustment is not the divorce itself but the conflict that occurred during the time of the marriage (Kelly, 2000). Kelly cites several large longitudinal studies which found that as many as half of the reported behavioural or academic problems that were displayed in children were actually observed 4 to 12 years before the parents separated.
The Christchurch Health and Development Study followed 1265 children from birth to 21 years old and focused on child and adolescent mental health. Their findings also suggested that much of the increased risk that faces children of parental separation or divorce could be traced to factors prior to the separation. These factors included socioeconomic disadvantage, higher occurrence of adverse life events and high levels of conflict between the parents. When they allowed for the children’s exposure to these events they found that risk levels directly related to divorce were greatly reduced. However, there were still small tendencies for a somewhat elevated risk of developing problems such as mood disorders, conduct problems and substance abuse in later life (Fergusson & Horwood, 2001).
Rutter (1981) outlines some basic needs of a child; a warm, stable and intimate family relationship; good role models; consistent discipline; and the freedom to love both parents. If these needs are met then Rutter says that the child is likely to have more resilience to the affects of a parental separation. Lengua et al. (2000) recognised positive emotionality involving displays of smiling, laughter and pleasure as also being a significant protective factor in building child resilience.
The quality of the parent-child relationship also has an impact on the emotional well-being of the child involved (Cohen & Finzi-Dottan, 2005). Other research findings identify a good relationship with at least one caregiver, as well as parental warmth and the support of siblings to be of significant value to a child’s capacity to tolerate high conflict families. In fact, children in high conflict homes that had a close relationship with a sibling looked to be as well-adjusted as comparable youngsters in low-conflict homes (Kelly, 2000).
Parental rejection, inconsistent discipline and the child’s temperament are all directly related to problems that a child may have in adjusting to a parental separation. Lack of positive emotionality and the presence of negative emotionality such as fear, frustration and negativity all seem to have a correlation with children displaying both depression and conduct problems (Lengua et al., 2000).
Other risk factors that may affect the child’s wellbeing after a separation are their individual differences such as gender, coping skills, self-esteem, intellectual level, and interpersonal skills. Variations in these individual characteristics might predispose children to a poor outcome (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001).
Effects of gender
Kelly (2000) cites research suggesting that parental warmth diminishes the negative affects of high marital conflict experienced by girls. Her findings differed slightly for boys however. She found that boys displayed positive outcomes which were directly related to parental warmth regardless of the level of marital conflict.
Kelly goes on to discuss findings which suggest that mothers in high-conflict relationships are less warm and empathic towards their children and tend to use guilt and anxiety provoking disciplinary techniques. These negative parenting behaviours were found to be associated with children showing poor social awareness and social withdrawal. She also reports studies showing that fathers in high-conflict relationships withdraw more from the role of parenting which indirectly results in feelings of rejection by the child and more negative interactions between them and the father.
Pryor and Rodgers (2001) note research which points out that the father plays an especially important role in the gender development of boys, and also suggests that a positive father figure is related to negative occurrence of depression in girls.
Nielsen (1999) reports findings which suggest that generally speaking, sons appear to suffer more negative consequences from divorce than daughters. One of the reasons offered for this is that the son is more likely to hear negative, derogatory comments about his father from his mother. This subsequently weakens the relationship between father and son. If a son hears negative comments about his father then this has detrimental affects to his gender identification and self esteem due to the fact that when a boy has a negative opinion of his father, he will often have a similar opinion of himself.
Nielsen (1999) states that if the mother does not re-marry within a few years of the divorce then this usually puts both sons and daughters at a disadvantage. Nielsen reports findings from a 10 year study involving a sample of 12500 twenty three year olds whose mothers had not remarried. They were identified as being worse off in terms of mental health, academic grades and social development – and sons were significantly worse off than daughters.
Other researchers report conflicting findings however. One study involving 2500 children over a period of 3 decades concluded that children whose parents re-partner face approximately double the risk of developing adjustment problems following divorce (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).
Bryner (2001) states that in approximately 90% of families in North America the children live with their mother following a separation. He cites research which reports that three quarters of children report feeling rejected by their non-custodial parent when interviewed 10 years after the divorce. He also reports studies which found a connection between a poor father-daughter relationship and poor social adjustment in girls. These adolescent girls often displayed promiscuity and precocious sexual activity. When there was a poor father-son relationship more frequent aggressive behaviour was often reported in boys. He emphasises the importance of keeping the father involved in the family picture after separation.
Hetherington and Kelly (2002) also report that when followed up after 6 years, a quarter of children see their non-custodial father once a year or less.
Nielsen (1999) reported similar findings and says that as well as commonly being the custodial parent following a divorce, mothers also (often without direct awareness) frequently determine the type of relationship that the children have with their father. He states that children often grow up with little or no relationship with their father simply because their mother has not supported it. He points out that this does not discount the fact that some fathers do abandon their children; however, divorced mothers frequently use their custodial power as a way of getting back at their ex-partners, usually without an awareness of the long term negative effect this can have on the children.
Pryor and Rodgers (2001) found that children frequently reported the loss of their father from the household as one of the worst things about separation. Their findings reported recurrent statements by children as feeling rejected by their father when he was no longer around, and especially when he found a new partner.
Current findings clearly emphasise the importance of a child being made to feel that they are important to both of their parents. When a child feels valued they are less demanding and are also more accepting of new partners into their parent’s lives. New couples would do well to understand that their partner’s children remain the priority and as such often require increased time and attention (Pritchard, 1998).
Effects of social class
Nicholson et al (1999) reviewed studies which focused on post-divorce children that were now living in new stepfamilies. Their initial investigations suggested that children living in stepfamilies faced greater risk of displaying poor social outcomes such as criminal offending, substance abuse, leaving school without qualifications, early onset of sexual activity and multiple sexual partners. However, they also went on to note that the risk of divorce is highest amongst parents who married young, were poorly educated and faced socio-economic disadvantages. They also noted that parents who divorce displayed higher rates of parental conflict, criminality and ineffective parenting strategies. These factors clearly overlapped with those displayed by the children in the studies leading to the plausible explanation that the higher risk of poor outcomes for children in stepfamilies could be attributed to contextual factors that existed prior to the biological parents divorcing.
Pryor and Rodgers (2001) state that socioeconomic status including aspects such as parental education, parental occupations (or lack of), income and housing conditions, all contribute directly to the wellbeing of a child. They go on to say that these risk factors may also contribute to the likelihood of a family remaining intact or separating and as such, may link divorce with negative outcomes for a child; they do not however imply that divorce is the cause of the negative outcome.
Nielsen’s (1999) findings however, suggested that even when parents come from a well educated background and are able to maintain their upper middle class social status post-divorce, this does not alter the risk of negative outcomes for the children. Nielsen concludes that social class per se does not appear to have any effect on the consequences of divorce for children.
Relationship counselling for the parents may be one of the most significant factors in protecting children from the affects of parental separation. Kelly (2000) cites multiple studies in 5 countries and across 2 decades where counselling or divorce mediation for the separating parents has been frequently beneficial to both parents. An amicable separation by the parents has a direct subsequent affect on the children. Therefore, if parents can be educated around the effects that separation and divorce have on each child, this may show a positive gain in the emotional wellbeing of children.
Divorce does not need to be associated with negative outcomes for the children involved
The common theme throughout the literature is that divorce does not need to be associated with negative outcomes for the children involved. The essential factors in determining how a child will respond can be linked to two areas of the child’s life. The first area looks at the parents; this includes negative aspects such as high levels of conflict, displaying negative opinions of the ex-partner, and trying to get the children to take sides; and also positive aspects such as giving time and attention to the children (especially when a new partner arrives onto the scene), showing consistent discipline, and making sure that the children feel valued and loved. The second area looks at the protective factors in a child’s life that will add to their resiliency; these include close relationships with siblings, good role models, freedom to love both parents and as much stability as possible.
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