Jacqueline J. Kirby, Ph.D., CFLE, former Assistant Professor and Extension State Parenting Specialist,
Katherine Dean, Graduate Student, Human Development and Family Science, The Ohio State University
Many studies have reported that children of divorced parents experience more problems in adjustment than children who grow up in intact families. Much of the research suggests that children of divorce are more likely to have more difficulties in school and to be more sexually active, more aggressive, more anxious, more withdrawn, less prosocial, more depressed, and more likely to abuse substances and participate in delinquent acts than their peers from intact families.
Wallerstein and her colleagues (2000) found that the normal adolescent developmental move toward individuation is threatened by divorce. Instead of being able to move toward independence and separation from parents, adolescents perceive parents as having separated from them. The adults are often consumed with their own problems during this turbulent time and adolescents may be neglected. Many adolescents feel their time for growing up is shortened by the divorce.
Other related concerns of adolescents include lack of effective discipline, lack of parental support in decision making, concerns about parents as sexual beings, and worries about sex and marriage. Adolescents also experience a profound sense of loss and anger, conflicts in loyalty toward one or both parents, withdrawal from the home in preference for friends, and for some, a failure to cope, characterized by regressive behaviors and early sexual activity.
Despite many adjustment difficulties, adolescents also show some positive changes such as an impressive development of maturity and moral growth, a more realistic understanding of finances, and a chance to experience new family roles and responsibilities.
Some researchers have suggested that the economic hardship custodial parents face following divorce is the critical factor in predicting children's post-divorce adjustment. Dramatic losses in income contribute to additional life stresses such as moving to a smaller residence in neighborhoods with increased crime, lower quality schools, and loss of familiar and developed community supports. Lower income also forces many custodial parents to work additional hours to cover the basic necessities and bills. Financial strain is one of the strongest predictors of depression in single parents. Higher levels of depression are predictive of more punitive disciplinary practices and decreased parental nurturance, support, and satisfaction with the parenting role.
Gender may also affect vulnerability and difficulties. Boys exhibit higher levels of poor adjustment post-divorce than do girls (who often show no greater adjustment problems than girls from intact families). However, problems related to sex differences tend to be reported only when children live with unremarried mothers. When children live with their custodial father or a remarried family, girls exhibit poorer adjustment, whereas boys fare better than those in mother-custody homes. Gender differences in adjustment are likely to depend on multiple factors such as sex of custodial parent, parenting style, marital status, parent-child relationships, and amount of contact with non-custodial parent.
Most children's adjustment problems occur within the first two years following their parent's divorce or remarriage. Still, some children, who appear to be adjusting well early-on, will experience a reemergence of problems during adolescence. Research indicates that while behavior problems are common at the time of divorce, they typically diminish as time passes. Most children will eventually adapt successfully to this life transition and have no long-term ill effects.
Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) found that adolescent adjustment (absence of depression, low levels of deviant behaviors, and academic achievement) is influenced by many factors within the adolescents' primary residence. These factors include a feeling of closeness to the residential parent, effective parental monitoring, joint decision-making between the adolescent and parent regarding household rules and youth activities, and low parent-child conflict. Activities that reflect effective parenting include providing warmth and support, assisting with problems, providing encouragement, setting and explaining standards, monitoring, and enforcing discipline.
Also, cooperative, mutually supportive, low conflict co-parenting relationships are advantageous for both children and adults. Other family process variables such as the maintenance of parent involvement, successful manipulation of the logistics of co-parenting (e.g., maintaining schedules, visitation, communication, decision-making), and the coordination of parenting roles and values are important mechanisms for reducing the stress of both parents and children.
Amato, P. R., & Keith, B. (1991). Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 26-46.
Grych, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (1992). Interventions for children of divorce: Toward greater integration of research and action. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 424-454.
Hetherington, E. M., Bridges, M., & Insabella, G. M. (1998). What matters? What does not?: Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children's adjustment. American Psychologist, 53 (2), 167-184.
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton.
Maccoby, E., & Mnookin, R. H. (1992). Dividing the child: Social and legal dilemmas of custody. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Simons, R. L., Whitbeck, L. B., Beaman, J., & Conger, R. D. (1994). The impact of mothers' parenting, involvement by nonresidential fathers, and parental conflict on the adjustment of adolescent children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 356-374.
Wallerstein, J. S., Lewis, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2000). The unexpected legacy of divorce: A 25 year landmark study. New York: Hyperion.
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