Recent research on the impact of divorce of children can be very instructive for those parents who are ready and willing to do what they can to help their children weather this crisis. Early research on the effects of divorce painted a very bleak picture. That research and its conclusions were limited, however, by the fact that the researchers relied on very small samples and neglected to compare children of divorce to children living within intact families.
What We Know
Without a doubt, divorce represents a crisis of major proportions for children. Still, stereotypes about the disastrous effects of divorce on children notwithstanding, the actual differences between these children and children living within intact families turns out to be less than the early research would lead us to believe. As measured by standardized tests of psychological adjustment, the majority of children of divorce fall within the normal range. Essentially what this means is that divorce does not have to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure, depression, and low self-esteem.
What About the Exceptions?
While the majority of children of divorce appear to be able to weather the storm, not all of them do. What do we know about those who don't? More importantly, how can that knowledge help parents and counselors anticipate and improve these children's ability to survive divorce? What follows is a brief guide to the critical factors that need to be kept in mind.
For those children whose adjustment takes a downturn as a result of divorce, economic factors that are faced by children and their now single parents post-divorce may account for as much as half of the problem. Courts typically make decisions about financial matters such as child support using formulas that vary from state to state. However, given the current state of our economy there is a higher likelihood today that any given child's standard of living will decline as a result of divorce. This situation may not be totally avoidable; on the other hand, parents and extended family should not look the other way when it comes to the stress that lack of money for essentials, or for once-valued activities, can have on children's sense of security.
A large body of research exists to support the contention that marital conflict is associated with increased anxiety and depression and poorer overall social and school adjustment in children. Witnessed violence between parents is even worse than conflict. Significantly, these factors -- conflict and/or violence -- often exist before a divorce is initiated. In other words, many children's adjustment may suffer not so much as a result of divorce itself as the home environment that existed well before the divorce. To the extent that parents continue to fight on a chronic basis after the divorce, they should not expect their children to simply "get over it." For this reason, counseling after a divorce may be as important or even more important as it could have been before the divorce -- something for parents to seriously consider. After all, learning to resolve conflicts in a counselor's office can spare children the stress of witnessing chronic anger and battling.
Ongoing Parental Involvement
In an earlier blog I addressed some of the issues associated with shared parenting (sometimes called co-parenting). The past two decades have seen a significant change in the amount of time that divorced fathers have access to their children. However, research has found little if any correlation between the sheer amount of time that divorced fathers spend with their children, and those children's overall adjustment. On the other hand, research has found that children of divorce whose fathers spend time assisting with homework, talking and listening, and engaging with their children's activities (sports, art classes, etc.) show better academic performance and fewer behavioral problems. This is not to say that divorced fathers should spend less time with their childre; rather it indicates that quality may count as much or more than quantity. This woud be true for divorced mothers as well as fathers.
Taken together the above -- which reflects knowledge derived from careful research -- can be thought of as a "road map" for parents of divorce and their extended families. To the extent they can learn from these lessons and focus their efforts on these key factors, divorcing parents can help insure that their children emerge not permanently wounded, but more resilient and capable of facing life head-on.
To learn more about helping children survive divorce see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation