The Effects of Divorce on Children : A Selected Literature Review
This paper seeks to provide an overview of some of the social science findings related to the effects of marital disruption on children. Divorce and life in a one-parent family are becoming increasingly common experiences in the lives of parents and children. Prior to the 1960s, divorce in Canada was rare. However, following the adoption of the new Divorce Act in 1968, which made divorces more accessible in all provinces/territories and allowed marriage breakdown as grounds for separation, the number of divorces increased dramatically. According to Dumas and Péron (1992), between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1980s, the divorce rate increased fivefold. In 1995, the most recent year for which data are available, there were approximately 77,000 divorces granted in Canada, a rate of 262 per 100,000 people (Statistics Canada, 1997). According to a report prepared by the Bureau of Review (1990), Statistics Canada estimates that almost one-third of all Canadian marriages will end in divorce. Moreover, it is estimated that one in two divorce cases involve dependent children, illustrating that each year a substantial number of children are affected by divorce. According to the report, in the late 1980s, approximately 74,000 children became "children of divorce".
Starting in the early sixties, a great deal of research has been conducted on the effects of marital disruption on children and it is perhaps not surprising that the social sciences have had more impact in this area of the law than in any other. During the 50s and 60s, the dominant discourse in the literature constructed the mother as vital to the child’s well being and this was associated with legal and policy shifts that emphasized the "tender years doctrine". Beginning in the late 70s and particularly since the 80s, however, a shift has occurred. The welfare of the child has become the central and determining metaphor in family law and we are witnessing an emphasis on the importance of the role of the father as an instrument of that welfare. Moreover, rights to equality between parents have been used to bolster that role. There has been an emphasis on consensual joint parenting after divorce and on agreement rather than conflict between parents. Fatherhood has achieved a new status and policy shifts seek to maintain relationships between men and children.
Through a review of the literature, this paper attempts to examine how one might best understand the concept of "best interests of the child" by examining studies which attempt to tease out the effects of marital disruption on children. Although the majority of articles are from the United States, for the most part, similar results have been found in other countries and there is little reason to suspect that the experience of Canadian children would be substantially different.
The first section of this paper discusses the limitations associated with research conducted in this domain. The second section examines a range of key situational and demographic factors associated with the negative impacts of marital disruption on children. These include: child characteristics (e.g., gender, age); family characteristics (e.g., socio-economic status, childrearing techniques); and, situational characteristics (e.g., the existence of conflict before and after divorce, custody arrangements, availability of support systems). The final section of this paper highlights research aimed at reducing the negative impacts of divorce and marital disruption on children.
-  The term "marital disruption" is used in this paper to denote separation and/or divorce.
-  This number refers only to legal divorces and does not take into account other forms of marital disruption, such as separation. Therefore, the number of children involved in marital disruption is even higher.
-  This is based on an average of 1.8 children per couple.
- Date modified:
When a marriage ends in divorce all individuals connected to the relationship are impacted. There are perhaps none so affected as children. Because of their innocence and immaturity, children are unable to process stressful events as adults are. Their reactions and behavior can range from subtle to explosive. The purpose of this paper is to provide research that illuminates that various facets of impact upon a child with the demise of a marriage. Relationships with parents, and sibling are all pivotal in the life of a child. These, along with therapeutic interventions, statistics, future outlook, and biblical underpinnings will be discussed. Finally, the author, an adult child of divorce, will provide personal reflection about the subject.
The ultimate end to a marriage is tragic and its affect ripples throughout the lives connected to that couple. Chaos and stress, probably feelings that have been prevalent for some time prior to divorce, ensue and impact the now divided family unit. Children are particularly vulnerable to the affects of divorce. Unable to understand and process such complex matters of life, children resort to alternative ways of expressing their heartache and confusion. The fact is that the divorce of parents remains with children, to some degree, all of their lives. Any adult child of divorce can relay past feelings that accompanied the demise of their caretaker’s marriage. Regardless of the passage of time, few children of divorce are unable to provide some recollection of pain. Relationships are often strained, physiology and psychology is affected, and the future can seem bleak. When we understand the gravity with which a child is impacted by divorce, the hope is that couples will devote energy toward any and all opportunities to salvage the marriage.
In the quest to understand the full impact of divorce upon children, one must examine current trends and statistics. Consider some sobering data (Portnoy, 2006):
- Around 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce.
- Approximately one-half to two-thirds of those who divorce will remarry.
- One in every six adults will divorce two or more times.
- Half of all divorces involve minor children.
- Forty percent of children in the United States will experience a parental divorce and half of those will reside, at least temporarily with a single parent.
- One in three of these children will live with a step-parent before the age of 19 .
- According to the 2004 U.S. Census, 1.1 million children lived with a parent who had experienced a divorce in the last year (Thomas & Woodside, 2011).
Ten years following a divorce, well adapted college students reported a continuance of pain and distress about their parents’ divorce (Kelly & Emery, 2003). They reported more painful childhood feelings and experiences. Feelings of loss were the most prevalent of the painful feelings. Further, the majority of these students reported missing their father’s involvement, evening questioning whether they were loved by their father at all (2003).
Manifestations of Stress
Faber and Wittenborn (2010) report that on average, children in divorced families and stepfamilies, as compared to those in non-divorced families, are more likely to exhibit behavioral and emotional problems, lower social competence and self-esteem, less socially responsible behavior, and poorer academic achievement. The fact is that the disruption of the family unit causes an inability to concentrate, remain emotionally stable, and move through daily activities without some form of distress. As previously discussed, children are unable to comprehend the details of divorce and many result in false assumptions, such as “This must be my fault.” When outward expressions of distress are not displayed, many children will exhibit physiological symptoms. These can range from headaches, gastrointestinal upset, sleep disturbances, and inattention. Depending upon the level of secure or insecure attachment, these manifestations may be more or less severe. “Insecurely attached children have been associated with externalizing problems such as delinquent behavior and substance abuse as well as internalizing problems such as anxiety, depression, and other affective disorders (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010, p. 92).” Further, increased levels of parental conflict may lead to increased long-term vulnerability to cardiovascular and other illness (Luecken & Fabricius, 2003). Parental conflict, perceptions of father caring, and time with mother are significant predictors of overall physical health (2003). “This is consistent with findings that adolescents from divorced families with low conflict reported fewer physical health symptoms and better overall well-being than those from high conflict, intact families (p.226).” Divorce may also directly affect aggression, distractibility, behavior problems directed at parents, economic difficulties, and geographic mobility (Hodges, Tierney & Buchsbaum, 1984).
The first few years following a divorce are typically a difficult and stressful period for most children and their parents (Faber & Wittenborn, 2010). It is estimated that families typically re-stabilize parenting practices and pre-transition levels of children’s behavior about 2 years following divorce and 5 years following remarriage (2010). After the divorce, children typically will respond in atypical ways. The behavior variances are unique to the family and individual child, but often display symptomatic distress in their circumstantial change. Verbal cues, play themes, transitional o jects and aggressive or withdrawn behavior may one or all be exhibited by the child. A six year old child explained divorce in this way,
“It starts with love, then you don’t live together, then you get unmarried, then you love other people, go back and back and back and forth and back and forth.” As he chanted the last phrase, he picked up a Slinky from his own toy box and slowly stretched it, gesturing toward the playhouses on either side of him. With the Slinky fully extended, he concluded, “and then . . . you break.” With that, he let the Slinky snap close and crash to the floor between the houses. (Ebling, Pruett & Pruett, 2009, p. 672)
Children who are not as verbally expressive, often convey stress in imaginative play themes. During playtime, some themes that are often depicted by children are reunion fantasies, damage and conflict, security and protection, and back and forth travel between households (Ebling, Pruett & Pruett, 2009). The most frequent play theme are reunion fantasies.
Another way that children display grief, loss, and stress is in that of transitional objects (McCullough, 2009). Children often respond to divorce with insecurity, loss of self-esteem, and repressed feelings of anger and loss, which may be manifested as aggressive or withdrawn behavior.
During periods of extreme stress, children may return to the use of transitional objects—more typically seen in the developmental period associated with an infant’s separation from his or her mother—as a way of coping with circumstances over which they feel little control (p. 19).
Transitional objects can be stuffed animals, blankets, dolls, etc. Anything that provides the child with a sense of security and comfort can be transitional object. Often times, transitional objects can become personified objects. “As a child’s need for a security object decreases with increasing maturity, a transitional object may become imbued with personality and agency and emerge as a personified object.” (Gleason & Sebane 2000, p. 420) An object is personified when the child incorporates traits that are human personality oriented. The blanket, doll, stuffed animal, or imaginary friends are animated and utilized for role-playing. These can be a source of support and stress relief for children of divorce. It should be noted that many children have transitional or personified objects who are not under stress.
Because feelings of shame, decrease in self-esteem, self-blame, anxiety and fear of abandonment may be prevalent for the child of divorce, children from divorced homes often perform academically worse than peers (Crow, Ward-Lonergan, 2003). An inability or difficulty concentrating due to anxiety and worry is not uncommon. Health issues that have resulted from anxiety can also cause a disturbance in sleep and ability to focus on school work. Fortunately, with time and therapeutic interventions, most children are able to learn to cope with the grief and stress of divorce.
With the tremendous influx of divorced families, therapeutic techniques have vastly improved in helping children cope with the stress and grief they face. Therapies, support groups, role-playing, and picture books are all great resources to assist the child in coping. Utilizing such tools gives children impacted by divorce an age appropriate view of the complex nature of divorce. When a child begins to understand and is allowed to grieve, express emotion, and verbalize their anxieties, he or she has a greater chance to be relieved of the extreme pressure and stress that can impact for the duration of his or her life.
Fictional picture books provide children “an alternative channel of interpreting divorce by emotionally distancing themselves as story characters and expressing their feelings vicariously.” (Mo, 2007, p.23) Picture books allow children to understand the complexities of divorce at a visual level that is appealing and age appropriate in comprehension. The illustrations provide children the chance to express feelings associated with divorce (2007).
Family therapy, psychotherapy techniques, play therapy and role-playing, art therapy and grief therapy are all models that have been incorporated into work with children of divorce (McCullough, 2009). Each method has benefits and advantages, depending upon the individual and family. Another form of intervention that has been found effective is group therapy. Group therapy attempts to “communicate with children on issues of importance, providing support, enhancing their skill development, and promoting their mental health” (Rose, 2009, p. 227). The three major advantages of group therapy in helping children of divorce are:
- Most schools and human service organizations are faced with large numbers of children who can benefit from help, thus working in groups is an efficient use of resources.
- The group work context normalizes the divorce experience and provides support to children who need it.
- Divorce raises many uncomfortable issues for children. Many children are more comfortable discussing these issues with peers present than they are in dyadic interaction with social workers. (Rose, 2009, pp. 222-223)
One final element of therapeutic help for children can begin with parents. Parenting education can equip parents in helping them meet the needs of their children during the stressful time during and following divorce (Kelly & Emery, 2003)
One of the most visible results of stress in a divorce is that of relationships. Obviously, there is a demise in the relationship between the parents, but the relationships directly with the children are now critical and must be recognized and supported. Some of the less obvious strains upon such relationships are economic, concerns of loyalty, parental conflict, and the previous level of nurturance prior to divorce. Children often feel they are caught in the middle of their parent’s conflict (Gilman, Schneider & Shulak, 2005). Children living with parents who seek to contain and/or resolve their conflicts, will fare much better over the course of time than children who live in the midst of parental conflict (2005). At the same time, children who continue a warm and loving relationship with parents and feel that their parents understand their experience will also fare better than children who have a less nurturing relationship with their parents (2005).
Children’s responses should be considered during the aftermath of divorce, and how well a child is functioning or not functioning should not be based on a parent’s need or self-interest to perceive fewer negative effects. (Moon, 2011, p. 348)
Children want to be understood. They want to be listened to. And finally they want to be able to express their feelings, which are just as real and raw as their parent’s.
Children are naturally indwelt with the need for both parents. The mother figure fulfills a set of needs and the father figure likewise. In the case of divorce, eighty-five percent of children from divorced homes live with their mothers. (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010) The mother-child relationship may be one of the few relationships which remains intact throughout the divorce and remarriage process. Mom is primary caregiver in almost all cases of divorce. This can be highly beneficial, but can also place tremendous strain upon the relationship with the child and the father. The type of relationship children have with their fathers, following the divorce “can either contribute to children’s resiliency or add additional risk.” (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010, p. 90)
Due to this fact the mother plays the strongest part in meeting the child’s needs post-divorce. But, considerations of sensitivity and security are often overlooked.
Faber and Wittenborn (2010) eloquently state,
Parents who are sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs induce feelings of support and felt security within the child. These children tend to be classified as securely attached; as such they appear confident that support is available from their caregiver during times of need. Parents who are inconsistent in their response to their child’s needs often have children who display feelings of anxiety, vigilance, and anger. These children are typically classified as anxious/ambivalent and are unable to readily receive comfort from their caregiver in times of distress. When parents are habitually rejecting or not emotionally responsive to their child’s needs, they often have children who are prematurely self-reliant and repress feelings of vulnerability. These children are usually classified as avoidant and do not trust their caregiver to be supportive during times of distress. Disorganized children often experience their caregivers’ behaviors as frightening or experience maltreatment and tend to exhibit inconsistent or incoherent patterns of interacting. (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010, p. 91)
It is absolutely essential for mothers to allow children the ability to express their emotions, fears, and concerns. Further it is imperative that consistency, sensitivity, and openness are offered regularly. Structure and security are foundational to the health and healing for children of divorce.
It is an undeniable fact that the court’s preference for mother’s often limits the interaction with healthy, well-intentioned, caring fathers. Fathers often relay a sense of discouragement regarding “legal practitioners and a legal child custody system which they perceived to be biased against fathers as the reason why they were unable to obtain what they desired.” (Kruk, 2010, p. 164)
The responsibilities of social institutions to support fathers in the fulfillment of their parenting responsibilities is a largely overlooked issue in the child custody discussion, which has largely focused on the competing rights-based claims of parents; a child-focused framework of child custody determination, focused on children’s needs, parental responsibilities in regard to these needs, and social institutional responsibilities to support parents in the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities, may offer a fresh approach to the issue. A principal finding of the present study is that fathers who wish to maintain a responsible, active parentalrole in the care of their children are discouraged from doing so, as the most common legal determination in disputed cases is non-residential fatherhood. (Kruk, 2010, pp. 173-174)
The separation of father and child often begins at the fall of the gavel. What is tragic is that children are often used as pawns in a game of gotcha between parents. Someone always loses, often mothers, sometimes fathers, always children. The children’s level of contact with their father can vary greatly. Some children are allotted regular weekly contact, others once a week, and still others only see their fathers every other weekend (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010). And some children have little or no contact with their fathers. Positive father involvement following divorce has been associated with higher psychological scores, higher self-esteem, and lessened behavioral problems (2010). However, a sudden loss in daily contact with fathers may lead to feelings of abandonment and anxiety about separation. Ultimately, the lack of involvement by a father may begin to force children to question and even alter their internal working model of their father (2010). It seems that indicators of positive father involvement are immediately evident post-divorce. A poor relationship is characterized by low contact and higher levels of conflict (Peters & Ehrenberg, 2008). Though all children need their fathers, there is evidence to suggest that girls, in particular, are especially impacted by the involvement of their father. Disruptions due to divorce may lead to an increase female’s interest in and dependency on males (McLanahan & Bumpus, 1988). Studies also suggest that positive paternal involvement in pre-school age children also leads to flexible attitudes toward male and female roles (Kruk, 2010). Attachment in either parent is only possible with a sufficient level of engagement, and changes in engagement after divorce affect accessibility and responsibility (Kruk, 2010).
And as paternal engagement is necessary for accessibility and responsibility, so quality of attachment is largely dependent on amount of contact. Strong and secure emotional attachments between fathers and their children are not possible without routine and meaningful contact, beyond the constraints of court-ordered “access” and “visiting.” There seems little doubt that current laws and social institutional policies and practices present barriers to responsible fatherhood involvement and father-child attachment after divorce. (Kruk, 2010, p. 176)
It is clear that with each increment of increased contact between children of divorce and their fathers, there is also an equal increase in young adults reporting closeness with their fathers. At the same time, when there is a decrease in contact, feelings of anger also correspond. (Kelly & Emery, 2003)
The relationship with siblings can be, both, stable and unstable for children of divorce. Siblings from the same marriage can increase bonds following divorce and many older children “adopt a caretaking role for younger siblings prior to their parents’ separation and are identified as the closest of all attachment figures in a child’s life.” (Shumaker et. Al, 2011, p.46) In one fifth of blended families, children have both stepsiblings and half-siblings (Ahrons, 2006). However, children often do not think of their stepsiblings as brothers or sisters (2006). Closeness between siblings often increases from the experience of going through the divorce of their parents together (Thomas & Woodside, 2011). The addition of siblings through remarriage can bring added joy to children of divorce, but can also increase feelings of abandonment for the new child.
One of the most traumatic elements of divorce for children is the constant change and lack of control in his or her surroundings. Not only is there a change in who they live with, but most often there is a change in where they live and the duration of time spent at each location. These are a few perspectives offered by children regarding the toll of transitioning between homes,
- “Back-and-forth makes me sick. I want to throw up—both ways.” Another child repeated a mantra throughout the play: “Too long a drive, too long a drive.”
- A 5-year-old girl transformed the toy Band-Aid into a tool to help the dolls figure out where they belonged: “This [Band-aid] tells you if you’re in the right house.”
- Another child focused so entirely on the ordeal of the travel process—stuffing each and every play item into the toy vehicle or her pockets, and then “driving” all over the house—that as soon as the dolls arrived at “dad’s house,” it was time to go back to “mom’s.” (Ebling, Pruett & Pruett, 2009, p. 675)
Children feel a loss of control about their situation. They are often not adequately informed about the divorce and the implications for their lives. Most often they are not consulted with about their living arrangements and often they don’t feel considered about their emotions and practical feelings (Kelly & Emery, 2003). They often feel they live in a divided world. “The lack of correlation between maternal and paternal involvement suggests that “Mom’s World” and “Dad’s World” are separate and disconnected (Finley & Schwartz, 2010, p. 516).
For children of divorce, it seems just as they are adapting to the new life beyond their parents marriage, new transitions arise. Living in a single-parent household is a temporary situation for most parents and children (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010). Approximately seventy-five percent of men and sixty-six percent of women eventually remarry. This can lead to further confusion and frustration for children of divorce as parents commonly respond to remarriage with a period of euphoria. They become more focused on their new marriage than on their parenting.
Children may perceive the introduction of a new parent and possibly step-siblings as a threat to the attachment bond shared with their mother. This threat may be further exacerbated by children perceiving their mothers as less supportive and available as well as more negative. These changes in the mother–child relationship have the potential to alter the child’s working models of his or her mother regarding her availability and responsiveness (Faber, Wittenborn, 2010, p. 94).
Most often children of divorce are able to adapt and move through the new normal of life following their parent’s divorce. But, studies show that adult children of divorce tend to earn less income, obtain less education, have more troubled marriages, weaker ties with parents, and display more psychological distress symptoms (Thomas & Woodside, 2011) One interesting conjecture about girls living with their single mothers was,
Daughters of single mothers learn that women are capable of managing a family alone. When faced with an unhappy marriage or a premarital pregnancy, they may be more likely than daughters from two- parent families to become single mothers (McLanahan, Bumpass, 1988, p. 133).
Parents must work to re-establish consistent rules, predictable expectations, and firm guidance and control (Johnston, 1990). Children feel out of control. They need boundaries that they can expect to help give security and the feeling that they know what to expect. This is true for children of intact families, but especially of children whose families have ended in divorce. Parents, post-divorce, must work to restore warm and harmonious relationships with their children (1990).
Studies seem to suggest that adult children of divorce may also develop higher levels of acute and chronic health problems in middle-age (Luecken & Fabricius, 2003) This can also be correlated with current income, education, and family support, which report statistically lower than children of intact families. It has been reported that declines in physical health in older adults were related to the combination of early parental separation (by death or divorce) and high levels of current stress (2003). Children of divorce also exhibit significantly more mental health issues than children from intact families (Strohschien, 2005).
Portnoy (2006) highlights several risk factors for children of divorce which will cause more distress that may lead on to adulthood. These include:
- Continuing conflict between the parents
- Diminished or incompetent parenting
- Loss of non-parental supportive relationships
- Remarriage and re-partnering
However, there are several characteristics that will lead children of divorce toward positive coping. These include:
- The presence of positive social supports
- Competent custodial parenting
- An involved and competent non-custodial parent(Portnoy, 2006, pp.129-130)
The Bible makes it clear that God is not partial to divorce. While it is allowable in cases of infidelity, it is not to be used as a “first option.” Even when all else seems to fail, God is always grieved with a broken covenant of marriage, and desires that the bride and groom reconcile whenever possible. Mark 10:11-12 (New International Version) states, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” God thinks divorce is a very serious decision. With divorce rates on the rise and the rapidity of the process in today’s age, God still considers divorce much more than the “end of chapter in life”. Western society treats marriage like a weekend at the movies; when the plot isn’t interesting enough or the characters lose their appeal, it’s time to walk out. It is important to note the there are genuine cases of complexity in marital discord. That is not a fact that the author wishes to undermine, but it is equally true that divorce is taken too lightly, both in society and, sadly, the church.
Though the Bible has much to say about divorce, there is nothing said about the impact of divorce upon children. However, Ephesians 6:4 (New International Version) states, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (emphasis added) If anything exasperates a child, divorce will. The Bible is clear that man is selfish. Almost always, divorce is a result of one or both parties not relinquishing his or her will about one or more issues. While marriage is usually never considered easy, with work, humility, and a relinquishing of selfish rights, it is possible in many circumstances to work differences out. It is vital to note that there are genuine, necessary cases that warrant a separation or divorce. (Physical danger to one or more parties in the home, rampant chemical, physical, or verbal abuse, and cases of blatant, continued adultery, provide justifiable, understandable, and biblical support in the consideration of divorce.)
My parents divorced when I was eight years of age. Though it was highly traumatic being initially separated from my father, he almost immediately proved to be an uninvolved father. My mother remarried and has stayed married to my step-father, who for all intensive purposes is my “dad”. My father, however, has married and divorced two more women after the demise of my mother’s marriage to him. I am now thirty-two years old and have no relationship with my father. I can report as an adult child of divorce, that my parent’s choices have impacted me, thus far, my whole life. Though I am not hindered by their divorce, I have had to work extremely hard to overcome maladaptive attitudes and patterns of behavior. It is only with the Lord’s help that this is even possible. I have now been married for almost thirteen years and have my own children. Throughout the various stages of my life I have been able to view my parent’s divorce in different ways. I continue to process the impact it has had upon me and now hold a strong fervor for marriage. Marriage is not easy. It takes more work than any relationship mankind forges, but it is necessary for us to learn, grow, and foster health into our marriages for ourselves and the sake of our children. I have no wish to make my parent’s mistakes. I have certainly made my own, but I refuse to allow the patterns of divorce and broken relationships to continue. With God’s help and the recognition of my past, I remain dedicated to my marriage and my children. Children are adaptable, with therapy, support from solid friends and family, and my faith, I have risen above the grief and trauma I faced as a child, resulting from my parent’s divorce. This should, however, never be used as justification for parent’s decision. The gravity of stress a child faces when their parents end their marriage is immense. That point cannot be stressed strongly enough.
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