Sarah-Marie Hopf, "Risk and Resilience in Children Coping with Parental Divorce," Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, Spring 2010. Copyright © 2010 Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Sarah-Marie Hopf is a project strategist fellow at the consulting firm 17 Triggers, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Children are exposed to stressful risks and events when parents divorce, including high conflict, lost relationships, and remarriage, which can result in the development of externalizing or internalizing disorders. Nonetheless, the majority of researchers agree that most children possess the resilience to cope with the stresses and new circumstances of divorce and mature into well-adjusted adults. Along with their temperament and coping skills, as well as age, gender, preexisting mental problems, and other factors, resilient children receive good parenting and have supportive school and social environments. Research on divorce should focus on resilience in children of divorce from a range of cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to help create intervention programs designed for the needs of diverse families.
Today over 45 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce and "about 40 percent of children will experience their parents' divorce, with about 80 percent of them placed primarily in the physical custody of their biological mother". Divorce represents one of the most stressful life events for both children and their parents. Major stressors and risk factors include the initial period after separation, parental conflict, the loss of vital relationships, financial problems, and repartnering or remarriage. Many educators, politicians, mental health workers, family theorists, and the media portray divorced families as unfit for the successful upbringing of children. They believe that only married families can provide a warm and nurturing environment in which children can thrive. Some family scholars even argue that "the breakdown of the traditional family [destroys] the basic fabric of American society and contributes to a vast array of social problems that will carry on into future generations".
A few major longitudinal studies such as the [Judith S.] Wallerstein et al. study have supported strong negative effects on children from divorced families. However, one cannot generalize from these studies, because they often used non-representative samples such as clinical samples with pre-existing psychological problems and failed to employ standardized measures to produce reliable and valid data. Therefore, one needs to examine critically the findings of divorce studies. On average, children in married families fare better than children from divorced families. Nevertheless, the vast majority of children possess great resilience and the ability to "cope with or even benefit from their new life situation". Internal factors such as the child's psychological and physical characteristics and external factors such as the immediate and extended family and the community environment influence a child's resilience and ability to cope with parental divorce. Good parenting and extra-familial protective factors such as peer relationships, schools, and support from nonparental adults including mentors and neighbors also contribute to children's resilience and effective coping.
The departure of one parent and inadequate information about the reasons for divorce often cause externalizing disorders and to a lesser degree internalizing disorders in children.
Resilience in children has been studied since the 1960s and 1970s as researchers started to look at human strengths rather than shortcomings and dysfunctions. Although resilience proves difficult to define, it generally refers to "patterns of positive adaptation during or following significant adversity or risk" that allow individuals to "bounce back" to their previous level of well-being or even to attain a higher level of functioning. In the past, much controversy surrounded the study of resilience due to the difficulties associated with "translating definitions into operation in research". Researchers often failed to examine differences in resilience associated with cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Now, researchers are moving towards more standardized measures to obtain greater validity and reliability of their data. Resilience research focuses on assessing risk factors such as stressful life events and protective factors such as the child's personal qualities and environmental interactions such as positive family relationships. Protective factors "moderate the effect of one or more risk factors".
Stressors of the Divorce Process and Adjustment of Children
The effects of divorce-related stressors vary greatly among children and over time. The nature of the initial separation, parental conflict, the loss of vital relationships, financial problems, and repartnering or remarriage of one or both parents play a crucial role in how these stressors affect children's adjustment in the short and long run. Many children express some form of externalizing or internalizing disorders. Externalizing disorders include "antisocial, aggressive, noncompliant behavior and lack of self-regulation, low social responsibility, and diminished cognitive agency and achievement" whereas "anxiety, depressive symptoms and problems with social relationships" represent common internalizing disorders. Further, children from divorced families have a much higher chance of experiencing lower academic performance, dropping out of school, having a teenage pregnancy, and abusing alcohol or drugs than children from married families.
Stress of the Initial Separation
Most children show strong reactions to their parents' divorce, especially over a period of one or two years following divorce. The departure of one parent and inadequate information about the reasons for divorce often cause externalizing disorders and to a lesser degree internalizing disorders in children. Survey studies using such measures as clinical cutoff scores on the Child Behavior Checklist found that about 20-25 percent of children in divorced families, compared to 10 percent of children in non-divorced families, demonstrate severe emotional and behavioral problems.
Custodial mothers often experience a significant reduction in their economic resources after divorce.
Many divorce researchers have wondered whether parents should stay together for the sake of their children despite a high-conflict marriage. Divorce represents the better option if it can lessen the amount of conflict and negativity in the children's environment. Conflict between parents during and following separation and divorce represents a major stressor for children and can lead to difficulties in these children's adjustment. Between 20 and 25 percent of children experience high conflict during the marriage of their parents. Some families are able to reduce conflict whereas others continue to fight after divorce. High conflict that involves the child, "conflict that is physically violent, threatening or abusive, and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle has the most adverse consequences for the well-being of children". In addition, mothers and fathers involved in high conflict marriages often practice poor parenting, because they use harsher discipline and express reduced warmth towards their children. Parents also have to cope with emotional problems resulting from the divorce and therefore take less time to support their children through effective parenting. Some children become the only emotional support of their parents, which puts additional stress on children's shoulders.
Loss of Vital Relationships
Children also have a higher risk of losing significant relationships with friends, family members, and especially the nonresident parent, usually the father. Children's relationships with their fathers frequently deteriorate, because they see each other less frequently. "Between 18 and 25 percent of children have no contact with their fathers 2-3 years after divorce". Many factors such as restricted visitation times, interfering mothers, geographical constraints after moving, psychological problems in fathers and new paternal relationships and remarriage contribute to the diminished relationships between children and their fathers. Boys especially need a close relationship with their fathers and react more strongly to deprivation of paternal contact. Some children purposefully limit the relationships with their fathers if they have abusive or violent tendencies or if the fathers have significant psychological problems and disorders. These decisions represent a healthy choice for the children and protect them from further harm.
Custodial mothers often experience a significant reduction in their economic resources after divorce, "retaining only about 50-75 percent of their pre-divorce income [as] compared to the 90 percent retained by noncustodial fathers". The effects of income usually affect the families indirectly. For example, they often lead single families to move to less expensive neighborhoods with weaker schools, higher crime rates and less desirable peer groups. Financial support from noncustodial fathers can protect children from these potentially harmful influences and lead to more positive relationships with their children. Paternal custody usually offers better financial support for children. Yet, studies found few differences in the adjustment between mother or father custody arrangements. Nevertheless, some studies suggest that boys do better when in paternal custody. These fathers, representing less than 20 percent of custodial parents, usually take exceptional interest in their children's lives.
Many internal factors such as age, gender, temperament and physical characteristics influence children's resilience to the negative effects of divorce.
Remarriage and Re-partnering
Studies suggest that one third of children will live in a remarried or cohabitating family before the age of 18. Children often experience significant stress when their parents begin a new relationship, especially soon after the divorce and when these children are in early adolescence. The absence of biological ties and the resistance of children make the formation of strong relationships between stepparents and children difficult. The biggest problems arise in complex family structures with children from multiple different parents and stepchildren.
Resilience in Children
Despite the significant stressors associated with divorce, approximately 75-80 percent of children develop into well-adjusted adults with no lasting psychological or behavioral problems. They achieve their education and career goals and have the ability to build close relationships. One study by [Paul R.] Amato even estimated that "42 percent of young adults from divorced families" received higher well-being scores as compared to young adults from nondivorced families. Therefore, the hardship and pain associated with their parents' divorce made them stronger individuals. Children from high conflict families oftentimes benefit the most from the divorce of their parents as it represents an opportunity for a better life.
Protective Factors Reducing Risk for Children of Divorce
Many internal factors such as age, gender, temperament and physical characteristics influence children's resilience to the negative effects of divorce. Studies have shown that intrafamilial protective factors such as authoritative parenting, children's residence in maternal or paternal custody homes, involvement of noncustodial parents, effective joint-custody arrangements, and involvement of supportive stepparents can significantly reduce the children's risk of developing externalizing or internalizing behaviors. Furthermore, extrafamilial factors such as relationships with peers and nonparental adults, authoritative schools, and interventions such as educational programs for divorced parents to improve parenting or youth groups can also help ease the transition and adjustment of children to their new life situation.
The influence of a child's age on his or her ability to cope with the stresses of divorce remains largely unclear. Many scholars think that younger children might face a higher risk of negative effects, because they cannot comprehend the causes of the divorce and have fewer resources from which to seek help outside the family environment. On the other hand, older children can often find respite in activities such as sports or hobbies. They can also get help from mentors, teachers and/or coaches. Studies have found that remarriage especially troubles early adolescents when they have lived in a single-parent home for a long time.
Parenting plays the most important role in the adjustment of children and in the development of externalizing or internalizing behaviors.
Most early research studies reported greater adjustment for girls than for boys. New studies have come to the conclusion that gender differences remain slight. In recent years, greater father involvement and joint custody arrangements have diminished the negative effects on boys who usually benefit from having a father figure in their lives. Both female and male adolescents seem to exhibit higher externalizing and internalizing behaviors as compared to adolescents in nondivorced families. Girls tend to express greater reluctance to their parents' remarriage than boys. Strikingly, "some girls in divorced, mother-headed households emerge as exceptionally resilient individuals, enhanced by confronting challenges and responsibilities that follow divorce when they have the support of a competent, caring adult". These findings do not prove true for boys in mother-, father- or joint-custody arrangements.
Divorce has the most significant negative effects on children with pre-existing psychological and behavioral problems. Children who possess intelligence, competence, self-confidence, and a good sense of humor usually adapt well to any kind of adversity. In addition, an easy temperament and physical attractiveness also prove beneficial. These children often receive more help from others. In general, "the psychologically rich may get richer and the poor get poorer in dealing with the challenges of divorce". In addition, the "steeling or inoculation effect occurs when children's controlled exposure and successful adaptation to current stressors enhances their ability to cope with later stressors". Other areas studied in positive psychology such as self-efficacy and an internal locus of control may also contribute to better coping styles in children.
According to the socialization theory, parenting plays the most important role in the adjustment of children and in the development of externalizing or internalizing behaviors. Unfortunately, good parenting usually declines and becomes less authoritative in the initial phase after divorce or remarriage, because parents have to use their energy to adjust to their new circumstances. Children often experience parenting marked by more control, less affection, and reduced communication. Remarriage tends to foster better parenting practices in the custodial parent, whereas parenting in single, divorced families remains more problematic. Studies show that "authoritative parents who are warm, supportive, communicative, and responsive to their children's needs, and who exert firm, consistent, and reasonable control and close supervision, provide the optimal environment for the healthy and competent development of children". This type of parenting seems especially important for children dealing with multiple marital divorces and remarriages. In addition, adolescents who experienced both parental support and monitoring expressed lower levels of externalizing and internalizing behaviors.
Most children live with their custodial mothers. Yet, little evidence suggests that mother-, father- or joint-custody offers greater advantages over the other. Father-custody homes pertain largely to older boys who have mothers with lower levels of education and financial means and who might suffer from psychological problems. Some studies claim that same-sex custody arrangements benefit children during adolescence. Custodial fathers tend to have fewer problems with disciplining their children and can often offer better financial means. Nevertheless, they also tend to have a more reserved relationship with their children and monitor their children's activities less carefully. Girls in mother-custody homes often develop close relationships with their mothers and serve as a source of support. In general, children living in single-custody households grow up more quickly, because they receive greater autonomy in decision-making and responsibility. Oftentimes, they help with household tasks, take care of siblings, and help their parents with problems.
Boys tend to accept stepfathers more readily than girls and benefit more from having a new father figure in the household than do girls.
Noncustodial fathers and mothers differ significantly in their involvement with their children. Noncustodial mothers usually try to keep contact and tend to play a larger role of emotional support in their children's lives. They oftentimes live nearby and sustain close relationships that address their children's needs. In contrast, noncustodial fathers uphold contact and pay child support only if they "feel they have control over decisions about their children and when conflict is low". Only about 25 percent of fathers visit their children on a weekly basis and 20 percent of fathers have no contact or see their children just a few times a year. They usually have a more distant relationship with their children and mostly engage in recreational activities but do not address their children's emotional needs. As a result, "children generally report feeling closer to noncustodial mothers than noncustodial fathers". Overall, children benefit from regular contact with their noncustodial parents. Boys especially do better in school and exhibit less externalizing and internalizing problems when they have contact with their noncustodial fathers.
Co-parenting provides the most advantages for children as parents make important decisions regarding their children together based on mutual understanding and trust. However, few families can achieve these optimal conditions. Many parents engage in parallel parenting without communicating with the other parent. Others do not cooperate at all. As a result, studies do not suggest significant advantages of joint-custody arrangements.
Supportive and authoritative relationships between stepchildren and stepparents benefit the adjustment of children. However, many children do not feel comfortable opening up to their stepparents. In addition, the lack of biological relatedness can also undermine the formation of close relationships. Boys tend to accept stepfathers more readily than girls and benefit more from having a new father figure in the household than do girls.
Children from divorced families have a higher chance of experiencing peer pressure and becoming part of destructive peer groups, because they tend to have lower self-esteem and social competence than children from non-divorced families. Many adolescents distance themselves from their families and seek other activities outside the home. This often leads them to engage in delinquent behavior and increases the risk of early pregnancy and substance abuse. In contrast, other adolescents receive support from close friends or from youth groups and organizations. Furthermore, studies show that children who have caring, non-parental adults who serve as role models such as mentors, coaches, and neighbors in their lives can cope better when they experience a lack of parental support at home.
Children should know the causes for their parents' divorce and have a say in their living arrangements and have the freedom to decide how much contact they would like to have with their noncustodial parents.
Children with positive attachments to their schools often cope better with their new life circumstances. School environments characterized by "defined schedules, rules, and regulations, and the use of warm, consistent discipline and expectations for mature behavior have been associated with enhanced social and cognitive development in children from divorced and remarried families". Children with behavioral problems and unstable family situations receive the greatest benefits from supportive schools and teachers.
Legal mediations have increased joint-custody arrangements, which have led to greater financial support and involvement from noncustodial fathers. However, the positive results of these interventions do not seem significant to the well-being of children. Nevertheless, many children appreciate the continued role of their fathers in their lives.
Interventions should primarily promote effective family processes such as parental support and monitoring. Educational programs for parents can largely contribute to these goals by giving parents the tools to cope with the stresses associated with divorce to limit conflict and to practice successful parenting. Furthermore, youth groups and other pro-social organizations such as church groups can serve as a strong source of support for children and adolescents. Authoritative schooling can particularly help children with externalizing behavioral problems by setting regulations and rules. Strengthening intra-family and extended family support can contribute to family resilience and buffer children's risk factors following divorce. Lastly, children should know the causes for their parents' divorce and have a say in their living arrangements and have the freedom to decide how much contact they would like to have with their noncustodial parents.
Divorce exposes children to many risk factors such as high conflict, the loss of important relationships, and remarriage. This can lead these children to develop externalizing and internalizing behaviors. For many years, some couples did not dare to divorce because they feared the detrimental effects on their children, although divorce would have been the most beneficial solution for everyone involved. Media and certain studies strengthened this view. Now, however, most researchers would agree that most children have the necessary resilience to deal with their new circumstances and challenges and ultimately become well-adjusted adults. Internal protective factors such as temperament and coping skills as well as good parenting and a supportive environment help these children successfully cope with their new situation. Future directions for research on divorce should examine the varying degrees of resilience of children from different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic heritages. This could help in creating intervention programs tailored to the specific needs of families with different backgrounds. Studies should use standardized measures and employ representative samples to make them reliable and valid. In addition, interventions should focus primarily on improving good parenting practices as they represent the most important factor in the adjustment of children.