Part 2: New Research on the Impact of Divorce on Children

On behalf of Stange Law Firm, PC posted in divorce on Monday, January 20, 2014.

As we stated in our last article, the media and general community tend to view divorce as having a negative impact on children. The recent article “Deconstructing the Impact of Divorce on Children” written by Sol R. Rappaport and published in the Family Law Quarterly (a publication of the American Bar Association) suggests that based on current research, it appears the majority 75 to 80 percent of children do not have psychological difficulties post divorce. In fact, most children do well post divorce and do not seem different from their peers whose families are intact. While children may miss having the ideal family and have negative feelings towards their parent’s divorce, it is no different than other children who experience other childhood difficulties such as the loss of a parent. Having stressful and challenging events does not necessarily mean that the child will have psychological difficulties.

Now that we know that the majority of children do well post divorce, we will focus on how children who do have difficulties do so based on five factors that are associated with divorce and not the result of the divorce itself. Five factors that may determine how a child does post divorce include: (1) the level of conflict between parents, (2) children’s exposure to the conflict and if the children are put in the middle of the conflict, (3) parent’s inability to meet their children’s needs, (4) parents’ mental health, (5) the financial impact of the divorce, and (6) children’s own perceptions of the divorce. It is argued that these factors account for the reason some children have problems and it is not the divorce itself that causes problems.

(1) Parental conflict and its effect on children is one of the most studied areas of divorce. It is well documented that when children witness their parents fighting, it increases the likelihood that they will have adjustment issues. The more intense the conflict, the more children will internalize (have depression) or externalize (act out). It is not only the witnessing of the argument but also if the children are put in the middle or are the focus of the argument. Marital conflict that puts the child in the middle is more predictive of childhood adjustment problems. Additionally, it is how well the parents resolve the conflict and their children’s perceptions of it Parental conflict may also be a precursor to poor parent-child relations and after divorce, less discipline.

(2) Parent’s Mental Health/Parenting Style is another consistent finding as to why children have problems post divorce. Divorce is hard and parents often have less support following the divorce. They are adjusting to changes, having to balance work, family and social needs in a new manner. Some parents may be returning to the work force after having not worked in years while other parents may have to work extra to pay the bills. Parents are more likely to have difficulty parenting and monitoring their children if they are upset or mad about the divorce, or are stressed out or overwhelmed. The first two years after a divorce are proved to have some deterioration in parenting which causes a negative effect on the children. Maternal or paternal depression are not only associated with marital conflict but are characterized by less parental warmth in their parenting.

Also parent’s parenting styles post divorce have a direct impact on the child’s outcomes. Parents who are authoritative in parenting, characterized by warmth, supportiveness, and appropriate limit-setting and control have fewer difficulties with their children than parents who have an authoritarian or permissive style of parenting.

(3) Another heavily researched area in the last two decades is father involvement. Studies have found that the amount and type of father involvement can have a great impact on children post divorce. Overall, studies show that when fathers are actively engaged with their children in a positive manner and spend quality time with them and also spend sufficient time with them post divorce, then, children do better. Is it the amount of time that matters or the quality of the time that matters? The answer to this question is that, yes, they both matter. First, in order to have a positive parent-child relationship, an adequate amount of time is needed. Second, if there is adequate parenting time and fathers are actively involved with their children for the good, this may get rid of some of the negative effects found in children post divorce. More specifically, when fathers are active in helping their children with their homework, and the father is authoritative in his parenting approach, children not only do better emotionally and behaviorally, but also academically as well.

(4) Let’s not forget what the financial impact of divorce can do to children. When parents divorce, they find themselves under the stressful burden of supporting two households, often with no change in income. Approximately 55 percent of separated or divorced women with children under the age of six live below the poverty line, one study reports. In a more recent study, 21.5 percent of custodial mothers who divorced in the prior 12 months live in poverty-and that means living with children of all ages. As a result, most children of divorce may spend more time in day care and less time with a parent while the other parent is at work. Parents may have to work longer hours but also there may not be enough money for children to do activities. In general, these economic changes can lead to stress on parents, resulting in less supervision or support for their children.

(5) Children have their own appraisal and contribution as well. Children respond in different ways to divorce. Not all of the reasons some children do well and other do not do so well have to do with these outside factors. Children contribute to their own functioning, with their own coping skills and temperament. Some children just handle situations better regardless of the support they receive. According to research, children who have an easy temperament and are competent are more likely to get more support from others and are more likely to cope with stressful situations such as divorce. Cumming and Davies, two prominent authors on children’s own perceptions, discuss the research on the impact of children’s exposure to conflict. They state that with “repeated exposure to angry, hostile, and unresolved disputes between parents, children are thought to become increasingly likely to perceive parental conflicts as threatening.” This increased appraisal of threat can predispose children to an increase in adjustment problems. Also “increasing feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness, and poor self worth-outgrowths of these appraisal processes-may develop into broader patterns of adjustment problems.” Applied to divorce, this could mean that children who blame themselves for the divorce tend to have more adjustment problems.

At Stange Law Firm, PC , we are aware of how divorce can impact parents and their children and we strive to do what is in the best interest of the child as the law states. We are a family law firm that practices exclusively family law in all of its many areas. Not only do we know family law, but we also work with outside professionals-doctors, psychiatrists and financial experts-to extrapolate information to build your case.

Source: Deconstructing the Impact of Divorce on Children By Sol R., Family Law Quarterly (a publication of the American Bar Association) Vol. 47, No. 3, Fall 2013

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