The Effects of Divorce on Children

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Divorce and Child Adjustment Problems

Over one hundred studies on thousands of families have been conducted comparing children of divorce with children from intact two-parent families. The great majority of studies find that children of divorce have more adjustment problems than other children (Amato & Keith, 1991). About two times as many children in divorced families show signs of behavior problems compared with children in nondivorced families (Hetherington, et al, 1998). These behavior problems include hyperactivity, aggression, delinquency, poor school performance, depression, low self esteem, and anxiety.

Bottom Line: Regarding this most basic question, do children of divorce have more adjustment problems, there is great consensus across past and present studies that they do.

Why Does Divorce Cause Problems for Kids?

If children of divorce are less well adjusted, what is responsible for their difficulties?

Several studies have found that poverty has a negative influence on kids living in single parent homes (Amato & Keith, 1991). Families are sometimes forced to move into more dangerous neighborhoods and can't provide as high a standard of living as before the divorce. The loss of income seems to account for some, but not all of the problems experienced by divorced families.

Some studies also indicate that greater contact with the non-custodial parent, or at least a warm, caring relationship with that parent, helps children of divorce remain emotionally adjusted (Clarke-Stewart & Hayward, 1996).

In the Psychology Department at UCLA, we investigated the causes of the adjustment problems experienced by children of divorce (Wood et al., 2004). We studyed a large group of upper middle-class 10-12 year olds, some from divorced families and some from two-parent families. Our results show that over the span of three years, children from the divorced families were consistently rated by their parents and teachers as having more problems with worries, peer acceptance, and acting out behavior than their peers in two-parent families.

Because the children of divorce in our study came from middle class families in West L.A., their problems could not be due to family money difficulties. However, the divorced mothers in our study were more withdrawn from their children than the married mothers. The divorced mothers also experienced more symptoms of depression. When the divorced mothers were especially withdrawn and depressed, their children tended to act out. However, in our study, mother's withdrawal and depression did not account for the increased worries experienced by children of divorce.  

In our study, we also found that divorced mothers were rated as more overprotective by their children than nondivorced mothers. Divorced parents are under stress from the divorce, have less time to socialize with friends, and they often find it easiest to "bond" with whoever is around the house. Divorced parents may be tempted to share their daily problems with their children, or seek physical or emotional comfort from their children when they are feeling tired or upset. Although the parent's needs for support are real, the "friend" role places too much strain on children, who are already stressed by the changes in their lives caused by divorce. Research shows that kids who feel responsible for taking care of their divorced parents have more emotional problems.

Bottom Line: Children of divorce seem to be at greater risk for adjustment problems for several reasons: lack of positive contact with non-custodial parents, loss of family income, and less positive relationships with their custodial parent. Children exposed to none of these factors may not be at risk at all.

Are Unhappy Marriages Better than Divorce?

Recently, there has been much public interest in the question of whether unhappy marriages are better than divorce for children. Inevitably, there are political overtones in this debate, making it difficult to determine whose position is "correct".

Early studies (e.g. Block, Block, & Gjerde, 1986) suggested that children from to-be-divorced families already had more emotional problems than never-divorced families. More recent research has generally found that children who are exposed to high levels of conflict between their mother and father have even more problems than children from divorced families. Therefore, it may be that, on average, children would be better off if parents divorced in high-conflict families.

Bottom Line: Probably, in many cases, divorce is better than sticking with a highly conflictual marriage (from the kids point of view).

Will Children of Divorce Become Divorced Themselves?

Much research has concerned itself with the transmission of divorce from one generation to the next. Are children of divorced parents likely to get divorced, too? Evidence suggests that there is a heightened risk for divorce in children of divorce (see Amato, 1996, for a review). However, a recent study conducted at UCLA by Wolfinger (1997a) has found evidence for a downward trend in divorce transmission over the last 20 years. Specifically, children of divorce are 50% less likely to become divorced now than 20 years ago. Wolfinger suggests that the increased prevalence and acceptance of divorce may account for this trend.

Another interesting finding from Wolfinger's research (1997b) is that children of divorce appear to marry other children of divorce at a rate greater than chance alone would predict. Furthermore, marriages of two children of divorce are especially likely to end in divorce.

Bottom Line: It appears that children of divorce are no longer at greater risk to get divorced themselves-- unless they marry another child of divorce. Then, the risk of divorce is significantly increased.

Do Step Parents Help or Hurt?

Hetherington, Cox and Cox (1985) made a valuable contribution to the literature on step-parents. Hetherington compared pre-adolescents (around age 11) with step parents to those with single mothers. Living with a stepfather was associated with fewer emotional problems for boys. However, living with a stepfather was associated with more emotional problems for girls.

Why is this? It may have to do with differences in relationships between mothers and their sons and daughters. Hetherington found that girls and boys in divorced families had very different relationships with their mothers. Girls living with mothers who did not remarry often became very close with their mothers, but boys often developed hostile relationships with their single mothers. So, girls had something to lose if a stepfather entered the family-- a close relationship with their mother. On the other hand, stepfathers may have represented a new male role model to the boys, something that is very positive for most preadolescent boys. If the stepfathers became involved with taking care of the boys, this may have helped the boys avoid the hostile interactions they had been having with their single mothers. Perhaps this is why most boys did better with stepfathers than girls.

Other studies have replicated these findings (cf. Hetherington et al., 1998; Vuchinich, Hetherington, Vuchinich, & Clingempeel, 1991).  Clarke-Stewart and Hayward (personal communication) also report finding this trend in their sample (1996).

Bottom Line: There is evidence suggesting that step fathers can be helpful for boys. Girls may have more difficulty adjusting, and biological parents must make sure to keep up positive relationships (including plenty of one-on-one time) with their daughters after they re-marry. 

Who Should Get Custody?

Few studies have directly compared mother and father custody. However, of those that have, there is some support for the assertion that pre-teen boys do better in father rather than mother custody (Hetherington, et al, 1998), whereas the reverse may be true for girls (see the early work of Santrock, Warshak, & Elliott, 1982; Warshak & Santrock, 1983). A recent study (Clarke-Stewart & Hayward, 1996) provides further support.

In an impressive study including 187 children from divorced families, Alison Clarke-Stewart and Craig Hayward (1996) examined how elementary-aged children fared in mother vs. father custody.

For boys, father custody was associated with lower levels of depression, higher self-esteem, fewer fewer parental ratings of the child as "difficult", and substantially lower anxiety. Children in father custody were more likely to have liberal access to their non-custodial parent than children in mother custody. There appeared to be less negativity toward the non-custodial parent on the part of custodial fathers. Allowing a great deal of contact with the mothers undoubtedly gave the children more of the benefits of having two parents.

The other important finding in Clarke-Stewart's study was that children in mother custody who had liberal access to father (a fairly small group) fared just as well as children in father custody. This finding suggests that a strong, consistent relationship with both parents is perhaps the most important predictor of child adjustment in comparisons of custody arrangements.

As a side-note, the results on mothers versus fathers for adolescents (as opposed to pre-teen children, as discussed above) have not shown much of a consistent advantage for mother or father custody (eg. Maccoby et al., 1992). It may be that whichever parent is better able to keep track of what their teenagers are doing is going to be the more effective parent at this age. Perhaps gender considerations become less important in comparison to firm, effective parenting for adolescents.

Joint custody versus sole custody has also been a topic of interest among researchers. Bender (1994) recently reviewed the literature and found that the majority of studies indicate that joint physical custody is better than sole custody from the standpoint of children's adjustment. For one of the more influential and well-designed studies on this topic, see Wolchik, Sandler, and Braver (1985), who found that joint custody was superior in numerous ways. However, some criticisms of the research on joint custody must be considered, as well (Depner, 1994). Depner suggests that joint custody may be chosen by families that are less disturbed than families that opt for sole custody. This is a possibility which should be investigated in a prospective study of pre-divorce families.

More research on child outcomes in different custody arrangements is needed.

Bottom Line: If joint custody is possible, and parents can work together, it is probably best. Otherwise, same-sex custody seems to be superior than opposite-sex custody for children aged 12 or younger, on average. However, on an individual basis, these arrangements may not make sense.

Can Anything Be Done to Help Children of Divorce?

Possibly the most promising intervention for children of divorce is mentoring programs. Recent research (Tierney, et al, 1996) shows that Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs help reduce problem behaviors and increase self-esteem in youngsters from single parent families.

Some children need other kinds of help. Lonhes and Kalter (1994) have devised a promising school-based support group program for children of divorce which may be useful to help kids normalize their experience and find supportive adults to confide in. Some states have instituted mandatory programs for divorcing parents to go through that teach principles of cooperation on parenting decisions/tasks that may help insulate children against post-divorce squabbles.

Bottom Line: Mentoring programs are an effective prevention. In some cases, discussion groups or individual counseling should be considered, too.

Divorce Research Methods

Only objective or empirically derived measures (i.e. standardized interviews, school grades, etc.) were used in the studies above.

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