Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Does Divorce Help Or Harm Children?

August 18, 2008

JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, a psychologist at the Children’s Institute at the University of Rochester, summarized research on factors that lead to healthy and unhealthy adjustments in children following divorce. Here are some of her conclusions.

Divorce is not a single event. Divorce is synonymous with change. These changes range from having to deal with grief and loss due to family reorganization all the way to changes in standard of living, neighborhood, friends, probable remarriage, etc.

Four out of five divorces are not mutually initiated, with the emotional impact being different for the initiator and the one being left. One of the parents is traumatized by the breakup of the marriage and the family.

Children rarely wish for a divorce. Most children experience distress in the early stages of divorce. They experience sadness, anxiety, anger, resentment, confusion, guilt, loyalty conflicts, somatic symptoms, fears for their future, and grieving for absent parents.

Long term adjustment depends on several factors. Children with divorced parents have more difficultly in school, poorer psychological adjustment, low self-esteem and fewer social skills. The gap between the psychological well-being of children from divorced and non-divorced parents increases between adolescence and young adulthood.

Negative effects extend into their adult lives. Taken as a group, children of divorce experience lower incomes, more internal distress, increased marriage problems and a greater likelihood of divorce in their own marriages. Even if they show resilience and positive coping, they still have painful memories, distress and negative thoughts about going through the breakup of their family.

When do children benefit from divorce? Children cope best if the divorce occurs between parents who have a long standing, high conflict marriage. By high conflict, Carroll means intense, unrelenting, chronic and in open continuous fighting. Parents are openly hostile, critical and explosively argumentative with each other.

Children in this type of home experience depression and anxiety and welcome a relief from the unwanted stress. Fortunately, these marriages are the minority. But often it doesn’t end there. High conflict marriages can turn into high conflict divorces and warring ex-spouses with the children caught in the middle.

Divorcing parents can benefit from learning conflict resolution skills, anger management, and how to avoid inflammatory verbal exchanges. Their approach to each other should be businesslike and matter-of-fact. In situations of unabated, intense and chronic conflict, parallel parenting may be better for children.

When divorce hurts children. Children of parents in a low conflict marriage become depressed and anxious when their parents divorce. They tend to view their parents’ divorce as an unexpected and unwelcome loss. They lose social support from friends and relatives and have poorer relationships with their parents.

Why do couples in low conflict marriages divorce? Compared to other couples, low conflict couples have average happiness, few serious quarrels or conflicts and are low in community involvement. Very few mention abuse or addictions. They grow apart and share less intimate communication. They feel life is passing them by. One of the main reasons they divorce is because of affairs.

These couples have the greatest potential for reconciliation. They also delay dealing with the low satisfaction in their marriages and don’t seek counseling or educational help soon enough.

Because the reasons for divorce aren’t obvious, children often blame themselves and have misconceptions or inaccurate ideas about what caused the divorce. They have more struggles, depression and behavior disorders.

Conflict and divorce. Conflict is a natural part of ending a relationship and disengaging emotionally. However, not all conflict is equal. What upsets children is verbal aggression, non-resolution of arguments and especially divisive arguments about parenting. Non-aggressive conflict isn’t upsetting to them.

Ongoing conflict disrupts parenting and detracts from the quality of parent-child interactions. Parents don’t have the time, energy or focus to pay attention to children’s needs. They are too needy, moody or distracted themselves. Divorcing parents need to compartmentalize the conflict and not allow it to seep into other aspects of their lives.

Self-care. Children of divorce need consistent support, emotional stability, security and structure provided by caring, competent parents. Parents need to be supportive and buffer the losses and negative impact of the divorce.

A well-functioning parent is the key to a child’s well-being. Parents need to take care of themselves physically and emotionally by reaching out for counseling and other supportive services. If the mother is the primary residential parent, she needs to gain confidence in her parenting skills - active listening, positive family activities, effective non-coercive discipline and limit setting, and using positive reinforcement.

Children need a supportive relationship with one parent or caregiver. This relationship can buffer any negative relationship with the other parent.

Non-residential fathers. Research shows that frequency of contact with children isn’t as important as the timely payment of child support. In the long run, this improves the child’s health, educational attainment, and general well-being.

How fathers relate to their children is important. Having frequent contact with non-residential fathers who are child-focused, show consistent emotional support, praise accomplishments, discipline misbehavior and support educational goals, has a positive impact on children. Frequent contact when a father is demanding, cold or controlling isn’t helpful.

In addition, outside resources such as grandparents, extended family, friends, school personnel, social services and courts can also provide consistent, secure, and supportive relationships to children of divorce.