THE EFFECTS OF DIVORCE ON CHILDREN
Purpose of This Report
The purpose of this report is to discuss the anticipated effects of the incidence of divorce on those most vulnerable to the long-term consequences of marital dissolution – children. The report will draw on literature from sociology, psychology, education, and social work.
The report will be divided into five primary sections. First, the statement of the problem will expand the presentation above with theoretical and research findings regarding divorce and children. This section will include an hypothesis and questions to be answered.
Second, a survey of related literature will be presented. Here, the emphasis will be on integrating the findings from several disciplines to synthesize the material related to the long-term consequences of marital dissolution on children.
Third, methods and procedures will be presented. A method for deriving insights into the long-term consequences of marital dissolution will be determined.
Forth, the findings from the preceding examinations will be discussed as related to the hypothesis being studied.
Fifth, the summary and conclusion section will be a recapitulation of the problem, literature, methods and procedures, and findings.
Statement of the Problem
Divorce, according to Black’s Law Dictionary (1968, p. 566), is the “legal separation of man and wife, effected, for cause, by the judgment of a court, and either totally dissolving the marriage relationship, or suspending its effects so far as concerns the cohabitation of the parties.”
The incidence of divorce in this society is growing. Estimates indicate that in 1981, the number of divorces reached an all time high of 1.21 million (Jacobson, 1985).
Perhaps, a major impact of divorce has been the dissolution of the historical nuclear family unit. This unit generally consists of a couple and their children.
Demographic and social trends have shortened child-bearing and child-rearing stages of the family life cycle. And, alternatives to marriage and the nuclear family are being developed. Because of the high incidence of divorce and remarriage, there has been a growth of alternative marriage patterns including single-parent families, shared custody, and “reconstituted” families (Popenoe, 1980, p. 368). Historically, the nuclear family has been a universal social institution; today, new patterns are emerging.
The situation of divorced American parents is different than other countries because, generally, Americans do not receive the levels of public support, as most Western European societies. In these countries, family allowances, preferential treatment in housing, child care programs, and free childhood dental and health care, help ease the burdens of child-rearing for the single parent, who is, in the majority of cases, the mother.
Change Impact on Children in Nuclear Family Units
The high rates of divorce have had a profound impact on children. In 1923, about one-third of divorces involved children. By 1971, the figure had increased to 60 percent (Popenoe, 1980). Researchers indicate that nearly 1.2 million children are affected by divorce each year (Jacobson, 1985). An estimated 9-11 million children of divorced parents are in the school system (Minuchin & Shapiro, 1986).
It is important to point out that the effects of divorce vary with the age of the child. Adolescents have more independent resources for coping than do younger children. Regardless of age, divorce is not easy for children.
Children of divorce must deal with many changes. Freeman (1985) notes that divorced parents are less affectionate with their children, adolescent girls more promiscuous, and that boys are more “feminized.”
Although there is evidence that children in single-parent families function better than those in families with two parents in conflict (Freeman, 1985), these children are likely to be absent from school more frequently and more disruptive in the classroom, have less effective study styles in their school work, get lower grades, and they are rated as less motivated and academically effective than their peers in intact families (Minuchin & Shapiro, 1986).
Children of divorce are more disturbed in their play and social relations than their peers from intact families and these disturbances are stronger for boys. Boys continue to show immaturity in their play, even after two years following the divorce (Minuchin & Shapiro, 1986).
Statement of the Hypothesis
The above problem statement leads the hypothesis that “children of divorced parents tend to suffer higher rates of emotional, social, and psychological problems associated with divorce than their peers from intact families.”
The hypothesis is generated from several conclusions: First, marital dissolution represents a profound change in the functioning of the nuclear family unit.
Second, generally, elementary aged children have not developed the coping and survival skills necessary to sustain their emotional and psychological well-being.
Third, marital dissolution may represent physical changes in living arrangements, bonding and emotional ties to relatives and one parent, and other upheavals in the stability of their lives.
Questions To Be Answered
The literature will be examined to determine answers to the following questions related to the effects of divorce on children. These questions include: (1) What are some of the psycho-social adjustments children of divorce must make and how do children experience divorce? (2) Are there long-term gender differences in reactions to divorce? (3) What are the immediate needs of children experiencing divorce? (4) Are there stages in the adjustments children must make to the realities of divorce? (5) What kinds of counseling services work best with assisting children? (6) Does the continued involvement of the father impact on the child’s well-being in a positive/negative way?
Survey of Related Literature
As previously noted, children of divorce are different than their peers in intact families in many significant ways. Although the disciplines emphasize different concepts and different outcomes and implications, the literature from sociology, psychology, education, and social work come to similar conclusions about the detrimental impact of divorce on children. The literature is utilized to answer the questions above. Each discipline will be reviewed, in turn.
Literature in Psychology
The Psychology literature points out that the long-term consequences of divorce on children and includes psycho-social adjustments necessary in several areas. Some of the concepts reported in these studies include temperament, developmental status, number of and relationship to siblings, emotional stability, and general adjustment.
First, the children of divorce display distresses associated with the process of transition that may last a year or more following the divorce (Minuchin & Shapiro, 1986, pp. 197-274).
In order to assist children in working through these adjustments, psychologists emphasize methods such as transgenerational family therapy. This therapy involves attention to the divorcing parents, their children, and their grandparents as an optimal therapeutic approach for divorce situations where children are involved.
Nichols (1985), using this approach, found that the problems associated with losses from divorce and family reorganization require the involvement of all the parties to assist children in resuming their normal growth and development toward maturity.
Studies of gender differences among children of the divorced indicate that the behavior of boys was characterized by under-control of impulse, aggression, and excessive energy. The behavior of girls was notably less affected by these stresses of divorce (Block, Block, & Gjerde, 1986). Research also indicates that the adverse effects of divorce are more severe and enduring for boys than for girls (Freeman, 1985).
The literature reports that the immediate needs of children experiencing divorce are parental interest in caretaking and an accommodation of the child through communication, affection, and understanding.
Sibling relationships are integral to the psychosocial adjustment processes depending on the sibling relationship. The use of sibling coalitions can counteract the separation of parent-child coalitions (Eno, 1985).
Overall, children tend to blame themselves for the divorce. This guilt, coupled with differences in treatment from the parent and peers, generate long-term effects such as a decrease in confidence, less ability to trust, fear of others, less academic motivation, and poor self-esteem. Children also experience sadness and anger.
Differences in the incidence of the negative effects of divorce are evident, depending on coping and resilience as a result of the parent-child relationship and the re-establishment of stable family patterns. Social and economic realities also impact on the psychosocial adjustments of children.
Literature in Sociology
The sociology literature related to the topic is from an area titled, “Marriage and the Family.” Generally, the “family disorganization” characterizes divorce studies. Sociologists point out the alarming rates of divorce and the numbers of children involved and note the impact of divorce on concepts such as delinquency, socialization processes, and alternative family patterns.
Goode (1976), in a pioneer study, noted the correlation between divorce and delinquency; he noted two findings. First, divorce rates are higher in slum areas, where delinquency rates are also higher. Second, the failure of parents, in situations of marital conflict, to play the “normal parental roles, and to carry out the usual activities and social control and socialization in socialization in the development of their children” have an impact on delinquency (p. 546).
Goode’s studies indicate that “quality of the childhood experience,” rather than divorce, per se, has a greater impact on children. He also indicates that the child’s adjustment is likely to be better with a stepfather than a stepmother. He concludes that children “do by and large negotiate this adjustment, and profit by it . . .” (Goode, 1976, p. 546).
Sociologists suggest that parents function to socialize children to the normative expectations of the society (Popenoe, 1980). Children learn appropriate role behavior from both parents, and when one parent is absent, may lack clear role identification. There are some indications that divorce is less harmful, in the long-run, than living in an unhappy home (Popenoe, 1980).
Children from intact families that are conflict-ridden have more problems than children from divorced households in an unhappy home where less parental conflict occurred. Children exposed to continued conflict after the divorce have more problems (Jacobson, 1985).
The literature is less certain about the long term effects of divorce on the socialization, later behavioral patterns, and eventual role conflict and identity.
Literature in Social Work
The social work literature indicates that understanding the relationship of parental divorce on the well-being of children is complicated . . . studies have grouped all children from all single-parent custodial households together” (Jacobson, 1985, p. 452).
There is evidence that children are considerably distressed within the first two years of divorce. Jacobson (1985, p. 452) notes that there is little knowledge about whether or under what conditions, distress leads to later psychological and behavioral difficulties.
There are findings that children of divorce require psychiatric attention at a rate of “twice as often” as children from intact families (Jacobson, 1985). Children of divorce are at a greater risk of developing mental health problems than children from intact homes in which parents report happy marriages.
Children may also be exposed to conflict after the divorce. This conflict can impact on conflicting localities for the child and can interfere with the child’s positive relationship with one or both parents.
Children of divorce experience loneliness, depression, sadness, anger, irritability, increased aggressive behavior, and regression, and fears of abandonment. The most lasting feeling was one of pervasive neediness.
Factors that are related to the child’s well-being include: parent-child interaction with specific emphasis on loss, parental conflict, emotional well-being of parents, and age-related responses of children. Other factors include social supports for parents and children, economic changes, stability of the living conditions, and the impact of other life events (Jacobson, 1985).
Literature in Education
The education literature highlights findings similar to those reported above. For example, children of divorce display problems in areas such as: psycho-social adjustment, cognitive development, school performance, and sex role development (Khoe, 1986).
Significant factors related to these problems include age of the child at the time of divorce, length of time elapsed since the divorce, parental stress, parental conflict, and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Children’s emotional reactions and the extent of their intellectual and emotional maturity are related to the stresses of divorce.
The teacher and the school are seen as positive, stable influences in the child’s life. Studies urge teachers to produce a comfortable learning environment because divorce alters school behavior and academic performance (Elmore, 1986).
The education literature reports that children, especially elementary aged have more difficulty experiencing divorce. These children go through the stages outlined in the Kubler-Ross grief model of death. These stages include: anger, depression, guilt, fear, and relief.
Description Of The Method
The literature in psychology, sociology, social work, and education shows a high level of similarity of concepts, research techniques, and findings.
It is important to note that there was one reference found to a longitudinal study of the effects of divorce on children. This study, found in the social work literature, was able to document age-related responses of children. For example, the immediate reaction of school aged children was pervasive sadness, intense strain, and immobilization. One year later, some of the difficulties had subsided, although the anger persisted longer than other responses (Jacobson, 1985).
This paucity of longitudinal research, and the need to study dynamic effects other than that derived from static analyses, generated an interest in developing a longitudinal design for a study of the effects of divorce on children.
The actual research study could not be conducted, given the limited time frame and budget constraints. The design does suggest that there is a need to determine, over time, how children learn to cope with divorce, develop appropriate adjustment behaviors, and move along to greater acceptance of and positive mechanisms for, dealing with the realities of the situation.
The following research objectives integrate findings from the above literature review.
The overall objective of the research is to answer the questions above with a long-term objective of making a contribution to the literature on the effects of divorce on children.
Much of the literature above seeks to determine the consequence of divorce in a limited framework, which is the nature of cross-sectional studies. Also, much of the literature reports studies with small sample sizes and a concentration on non-white middle-class populations (Jacobson, 1986).
This report attempts to expand previous studies by integrating the perspectives of several disciplines to derive a theoretical framework that seeks an inter-disciplinary approach to the long-term impact of divorce on children. The study would also seek a multi-racial/ethnic population to study the effects of cultural differences in the effects of divorce on children.
For a study of this type, a longitudinal framework is necessary. A small sample of elementary aged children can be identified and interviewed at periodic intervals to elicit answers to the questions raised above. Parents identified as divorced would be approached in order to obtain permission to include the child in the study.
The sample size would include thirty children aged six to eight at the onset of the study with fifteen of the children from divorced families matched, as closely as possible to fifteen children from intact families. The study period should incorporate a minimum of three years of analysis.
A carefully constructed research design can result in a small sample study that is as informative as a major data collection effort. The longitudinal design allows the researcher to monitor changes over time.
The longitudinal design assists the development of trust necessary when dealing with children of divorce. Ideally, a team of counselor, researcher, teacher and/or social worker would interview the children at specified intervals, to lend to the interdisciplinary quality of the study.
Utilizing the available research, in a content analysis design, there are implications of the long-term effects of divorce on children, answers to the above questions are found.
1. First, there are psycho-social adjustments children must make following a divorce. However, children often react with anger, sadness, quilt, depression, and blame of themselves. The long-term consequences of these reactions are reduced self-esteem, lack of confidence, and difficulty in school behavior and academic performance. Problems occur for males, and females to a lessor degree.
2. Long-term negative effects of divorce occur most often for boys and are not resolved as easily. The attitude of the mother may have some impact here. It is reported that mothers are less affectionate with male children and that mother-son relationships were least warm in instances where the divorce occurred early in the child’s life (Borduin, 1987).
3. The immediate needs for children experiencing divorce are stability in relationships with parents and stability in living arrangements. Teachers and the school system can play a vital role. Teachers must be willing to listen and avoid using terms in the classroom that may be offensive to children of divorce.
4. The Kubler-Ross model is applicable in these situations. The eventual resolution – or relief stage – occurs over a period of time and after the child has gone through the previous stages can he/she reach an acceptance of the situation.
5. Group counseling appears to assist children with divorce in coping with the stress, fear, and anger associated with this marital dissolution. The immediate need would be to deal with impending problems at home or school that can have long-term negative consequences. The goals of group or individual therapy should be to help the child deal with feelings about separation, loyalty conflicts and parental relationships and conflicts (Jacobson, 1985). Group sessions allow the child to share experiences with children who have mutual problems and experiences.
6. The continued involvement of the father can have positive or negative consequences. There are indications that the continued involvement of the father, free or open access between father and child, and a mutually supportive and cooperative co-parental relationship are important factors in the child’s adjustment processes.
Summary & Conclusions
Divorce rates in this society are continuing to increase and the numbers of children affected by this phenomenon are also growing.
It is well documented that divorce has a negative impact on the lives of the children. Children experience guilt, sadness, anger, and there are indications that they also experience symptoms of loss and grief, following the Kubler-Ross model of grief.
The schools and teachers can be positive, stable influences during divorce periods. They can support the children and mobilize their capacity to cope during this period of crisis. In fact, children must find matter of fact acceptance in the schools (Minuchin & Shapiro, 1986). It is important to note that the reactions of peers may persist beyond the period of crisis and teachers and schools must be aware that children should find acceptance in the classroom.
A longitudinal study incorporating the findings from sociology, psychology, social work, and education is necessary to lend an inter-disciplinary approach to studying the effects of divorce on children. This design would contribute to an understanding of the processes of adjustment for children, over time, and would allow study adjustment period.
Overall, it does appear that children do adjust to the divorce, although boys adjust less well than girls.