Divorce And Your Children


The divorce rate stands at 50% of all marriages, effecting more than 1 million children in the United States each year. This is the second in series of articles that looks at divorce and children and focuses on the general effect of divorce. The other articles examine the cultural changes in the attitude toward marriage, custodial arrangements and remarriage on the children involved in the divorce process and the last articles reflects on the of counseling children of divorce.

There are many studies that discuss the extent of psychological and behavioral problems that a child of divorce faces.

A new term is being used in the literature to describe today’s family unit; binuclear family as opposed to the nuclear family. A binuclear family is any family that spans two households. This language is replacing the term broken home (Karpf & Shatz, 2005). Karpf and Shatz suggested using this term rather than broken family to present a “more positive view” of the divorced family. The major difference between the nuclear family and the binuclear family is the potential complexity of extended family relationships. Children dealing with step-parents, step- siblings, being shuttled between two homes, holidays being split between two family traditions.

Sturgess, Dunn, and Davies (2001) looked at children ages 4 to 7 from diverse family structures including stepfather, single parent, stepmother, complex stepfamilies including step- siblings. They found that the lack of closeness with biological parents were linked to poorer adjustments and were related to externalizing problems. They concluded that the results paralleled the findings from studies of older children.

Feigelman and Finley (2004) looked at the effect of divorce on children who were adopted. They found that divorce had a negative affected on adoptive and biological children in much the same way. There were higher problem areas among adoptees. The problems identified were differentiated by gender. Their findings showed a significantly higher rate of running away from home and depression among female adoptees over their biological counterparts. Male adoptees had greater academic problems represented by a higher rate of school expulsions and grade repetitions than their biological counterparts. Feigelman and Finley (2004) refer to this as the double jeopardy hypothesis; divorce has a double negative effect on adoptees.

A study done in Australia looked at children of adult twins as means of separating genetic factors from environmental factors in reviewing the emotional and behavioral problems of children of divorced parents. The study found that the environmental factor of divorce accounted for a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse, behavioral and internalizing problems (D’Onofrio et al., 2005).

Wood, Repetti, and Roesch (2004) studied the connection between divorce, parenting and child problems at home and at school. They found divorce to be associated with ongoing adjustment problems for preadolescent children.

Malone et al. (2004) used trajectory modeling to segregate the effects of divorce on children’s adjustment from related factors such as children’s age at the time of divorce and the child’s gender. This study found that developmental course of externalizing behavior problems in relation to the experience of their parent’s divorce by children depended on the child’s gender and the timing of the divorce. Girl’s behavioral problems developed along the same path independent of the whether the divorce occurred during elementary or middle school. While for boys, the developmental problems patterns were affected by the timing of the divorce. If the divorce occurred while the boys were in elementary school, the boys showed an increase in externalizing behavior problems in the year of the divorce and this elevated level continued in the years following the divorce. Boys who had reached middle school at the time of the divorce however, displayed an increase in externalizing problems in the year of the divorce. But this was followed by a decline in externalizing problems ultimately resulting in a reduction in problems to the baseline in the year after the divorce. This decline continued into the following years.

The studies outlined above point to the effect of divorce on the psychosocial development of children and adolescents whose parents divorce. The next step in understanding the effect of divorce on development of children reviewed the studies that looked at the aspects of divorce. The studies looked at the relationship between the aspects of the parental divorce and the negative outcome for the children. The various aspects include: marital and family system disruption, reduced resources, and the parental conflict.

Sun and Li (2002) looked at divorce as a disruption process to the family system. They looked at the effect of the disruption process as well as the effect of reduced financial resources. They concluded that it was the disruption caused by divorce that affected the children. They could not support the theory that the negative affect was caused by pre-divorce conditions in the family. Their studies indicated no difference in the disruptive effect based on the gender of the children involved.

The financial resources of a family involved in a divorce may change dramatically after a divorce. Today more wives are working, but in most cases their earnings are quite a bit less than their husbands. The custodial parent is most often the mother when families with children dissolve. These single-parent families face a dramatic drop in income within the early years of the divorce. Even with child support most single-parent households that are headed by the mother are considered low income and live near or below the poverty line (Furstenbert & Cherlin, 1991). Divorce couples must also face changes in credit. The individual in the relationship who was not the primary “breadwinner” can find it difficult to establish credit in his or her own name. Of those individuals who had credit, most experienced lowered credit limits, cancellations of credit, and increased pressure from companies to pay off the outstanding debts (Sun & Li, 2002).

The negative monetary effects are the greatest during the first year after divorce. The two parents must now support two households on the same financial income. Although in most cases the custodial parent receives child support, the amount paid can be much less than the costs involved in providing for the child’s needs. For kids of divorce, adapting to a life of low income has a great impact on their lives. Financial constraints have been shown to cause the major caregiver parent to return to work, to increase the number of work hours, to take on a second job, or to attend night school to improve his/her job skills. Thus, the parent becomes less available to the child physically and emotionally because the parent is away from the home most of the day. When the parent is home, he/she has little time and energy left to give the adequate attention to the child. For the child, less income also means a loss in the opportunity to participate in activities like lessons, sports, summer camps, movies, and other special interests. This reduce financial level support affects the child (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000).

The divorce itself is usually preceded by parental conflict, followed by separation that often leads to internalizing and externalizing behavior problems (Cohen, 2002). Hanson (1999) examined the impact of parental conflict as a contributing element in the psychological and behavioral problems of children whose parents’ divorce. Hanson found that negative effect of divorce persisted thorough out the range of parental conflict. Although, he did note that studies have shown that divorce can benefit children whose parents had a high degree of conflict.

The studies listed above note that all three factors affect children of divorce; the disruption of the family, the change in financial resources and the parental conflict involved in the family system during the divorce.

It is incumbent on a counselor who is working with children involved in a divorce, parents involved in divorce, or parents contemplating a divorce to take reflect on all the elements of the child’s development needs. A divorce brings in many conflicting parameters that must be considered. Many of the theories of child development can provide useful tools but these conflicting parameters may cause a deviation from the childhood development patterns presented by the various theorists.

Cohen, G. (2002, November). Helping children and families deal with divorce and separation. Pediatrics, 110(6), 1019-1023.

D’Onofrio, B., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R., Slutske, W., Heath, A., Madden, P., et al. (2005). A genetically informed study of material instability and the association with offspring psychopathlogy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114(4), 570-586.

Feigelman, W., & Finley, G. (2004). Youth problems among adoptess living in one-parent homes: A comparison with others from one-parent biological families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74(3), 305-315.

Furstenbert, F., & Cherlin, A. (1991). Divided Families. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hanson, T. (1999). Does parental conflict explain why divorce is negtively associated with child welfare? Social Forces, 77(4), 1283-1315.

Karpf, M., & Shatz, I. (2005). The divorce is over — what about the kids? American Journal of Family Law, 19(1), 7-11.

Malone, P., Lansford, J., Castellino, D., Berlin, L., Dodge, K., Bates, J., et al. (2004). Divorce and child behavior problems: Applying latent change score models to life event data. Structural Equation Modeling, 11(3), 401-423.

Sturgess, W., Dunn, J., & Davies, L. (2001). Young children’s perception of their relationships with family members; links with family setting, friendships, and adjustments. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(6), 521-529.

Sun, Y., & Li, Y. (2002). Children’s well-being during parent’s marital disruption process: A pooled time-series analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(2), 472-482.

Wallerstein, J. (1991). The long-term effects of divorce on children: A review. Journal of American Academic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 303, 349-360.

Wallerstein, J.S., & Blakeslee, S. (2003). What about the kids? Raising your children before, during and after divorce. New York: Hyperion.

Wallerstein, J.S., Lewis, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2000). Unexpected legecy of divorce: The 25 year landmark study. New York: Hyperion Press

Wood, J., Repetti, R., & Roesch, S. (2004). Divorce and children’s adjustment problems at home and school; the role of the depressive/withdrawn parenting. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 35(2), 121-142.