Many of the 1.5 million children in the U.S. whose parents divorce every year feel as if their worlds are falling apart. Divorcing parents are usually very concerned about the welfare of their children during this troublesome process. Some parents are so worried that they remain in unhappy marriages, believing it will protect their offspring from the trauma of divorce.
Yet parents who split have reasons for hope. Researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or, later, as adults. In this column, we discuss these findings as well as factors that may protect children from the potentially harmful effects of divorce.
Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly after the initial blow. In a 2002 study psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce, especially anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear by the end of the second year. Only a minority of kids suffer longer.
Most children of divorce also do well in the longer term. In a quantitative review of the literature in 2001, sociologist Paul R. Amato, then at Pennsylvania State University, examined the possible effects on children several years after a divorce. The studies compared children of married parents with those who experienced divorce at different ages. The investigators followed these kids into later childhood, adolescence or the teenage years, assessing their academic achievement, emotional and behavior problems, delinquency, self-concept and social relationships. On average, the studies found only very small differences on all these measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families, suggesting that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.
Researchers have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after a divorce are associated with poorer adjustment in children. The effects of conflict before the separation, however, may be the reverse in some cases. In a 1985 study Hetherington and her associates reported that some children who are exposed to high levels of marital discord prior to divorce adjust better than children who experience low levels. Apparently when marital conflict is muted, children are often unprepared when told about the upcoming divorce. They are surprised, perhaps even terrified, by the news. In addition, children from high-discord families may experience the divorce as a welcome relief from their parents' fighting.
Taken together, the findings suggest that only a small percentage of young people experience divorce-related problems. Even here the causes of these lingering difficulties remain uncertain. Some troubles may arise from conflict between Mom and Dad associated with the divorce. The stress of the situation can also cause the quality of parenting to suffer. Divorce frequently contributes to depression, anxiety or substance abuse in one or both parents and may bring about difficulties in balancing work and child rearing. These problems can impair a parent's ability to offer children stability and love when they are most in need.
The experience of divorce can also create problems that do not appear until the late teenage years or adulthood. In 2000 in a book entitled The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Judith Wallerstein, then at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues present detailed case studies suggesting that most adults who were children of divorce experience serious problems such as depression and relationship issues.
Yet scientific research does not support the view that problems in adulthood are prevalent; it instead demonstrates that most children of divorce become well-adjusted adults. For example, in a 2002 book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, Hetherington and her co-author, journalist John Kelly, describe a 25-year study in which Hetherington followed children of divorce and children of parents who stayed together. She found that 25 percent of the adults whose parents had divorced experienced serious social, emotional or psychological troubles compared with 10 percent of those whose parents remained together. These findings suggest that only 15 percent of adult children of divorce experience problems over and above those from stable families. No one knows whether this difference is caused by the divorce itself or by variables, such as poorer parenting, that often accompany a marriage's dissolution.
In a review article in 2003, psychologists Joan B. Kelly of Corte Madera, Calif., and Robert E. Emery of the University of Virginia concluded that the relationships of adults whose parents' marriages failed do tend to be somewhat more problematic than those of children from stable homes. For instance, people whose parents split when they were young experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages. On all other measures, differences between the two groups were small.
Even though children of divorce generally do well, a number of factors can reduce the problems they might experience. Children fare better if parents can limit conflict associated with the divorce process or minimize the child's exposure to it. Further, children who live in the custody of at least one well-functioning parent do better than those whose primary parent is doing poorly. In the latter situation, the maladjusted parent should seek professional help or consider limiting his or her time with the child. Parents can also support their children during this difficult time by talking to them clearly about the divorce and its implications and answering their questions fully.
Other, more general facets of good parenting can also buffer against divorce-related difficulties in children. Parents should provide warmth and emotional support, and they should closely monitor their children's activities. They should also deliver discipline that is neither overly permissive nor overly strict. Other factors contributing to children's adjustment include postdivorce economic stability and social support from peers and other adults, such as teachers.
In addition, certain characteristics of the child can influence his or her resilience. Children with an easygoing temperament tend to fare better. Coping styles also make a difference. For example, children who are good problem solvers and who seek social support are more resilient than those who rely on distraction and avoidance.
The good news is that although divorce is hard and often extremely painful for children, long-term harm is not inevitable. Most children bounce back and get through this difficult situation with few if any battle scars.