Most parents facing a divorce have one big question: Is there anything we can do to prevent this divorce from ruining our kids? The answer is: Yes! A lot of things. And, unfortunately, there are other things you might do to increase your children’s risk of damage. Good to know the whole gamut of data available so you can make the best decisions you can for your kids.
Most parents do not realize that the academic universe is teeming with researchers who have devoted their professional life times to studying just that question during the past 25 years. When the rates of divorce were skyrocketing in the 1980’s and 90’s, and the family courts were falling farther and farther behind in offering healthy solutions to parents negotiating over – or bitterly fighting for – custody of their children, psychologists, lawyers, mediators, and academics in a variety of fields began studying the impact of divorce on children and publishing their findings.
Some studies have been based on surveys – questionnaires given to children and parents going through divorce, or emerging from it a few years later. Some studies have looked at teenagers and young adults whose parents divorced many years before, and have assessed how these people are faring – compared to those whose parents remained married. Still other studies have followed families as they approached separation, and tracked them for years beyond the divorce, measuring the children’s achievement in school and success with friends, assessing their moods, their levels of anger and anxiety, and even looking into their thought patterns about romance, friendship and their own parents. Some researchers have focused on infants and toddlers, others on elementary school children and still others on teens. We know a lot now about what factors will keep fathers involved with their children over time, and what will lead to their estrangement. We even know something about what, post-divorce, will increase the amount of financial support fathers will give their children for college. And we know a great deal about what both mothers and fathers and same-sex parents can do to lower the risks of maladjustment in their children as those kids grow up, and what will put the kids at greater risk. Some of the knowledge base contains debate and controversy — studies with different outcomes that suggest contradictory conclusions. Many of the researchers in areas of controversy are still churning out studies aimed at clarifying those “truths” so that we can be more confident of our conclusions. At this point, though, there are SOME conclusions that all the researchers agree with – conclusions that study after study confirm. Here are some headlines:
There are four main factors that increase the risk of maladjustment in children following divorce (and by “maladjustment”, researchers generally mean poor academic functioning, an increased risk of depression, anxiety and/or anger, low self-esteem, and increased risk of acting out with drugs or alcohol).
1 – (The biggie) Ongoing conflict between parents, especially if that conflict is about the children, and occurs in the presence of the children
2 – The child’s perception that she/he does not have enough access to or time with one of the parents
3 – The child’s perception that she/he has a poor relationship with one or both of the parents
4 – The child’s perception that there is financial worry and strain – that the bills may not get paid.
It is important for parents to understand that conflict between parents is common during the months of the divorce process itself. Many people are at their worst while getting divorced, and they do not shine, during those months, as ideal parents. Most children are resilient, and survive this awful time in the family. Everyone slowly recovers, and within a couple of years, healthy family members revive and thrive. It is when parents cannot stop fighting that children begin to suffer lasting damage that may not fully heal. And when parents continue to fight in legal wrangling, or live arguments within earshot of their kids, the damage can be profound. The protective mirror image to this risk factor: cooperation and communication. Do what you can to rebuild your co-parenting relationship in the wake of your divorce, and do whatever you can to allow your kids to keep both parents close and warm to their hearts.
Also important to know is that custodial schedules in themselves, have no clear correlation with risk or protection of children over time. Whether or not each parent has 50%, 40% or 60% of each week with their children does not predict how those children will fare. However, if a child feels one parent is preventing access to the other parent, and that child misses that other parent and yearns to have that parent more fully engaged in day to day life, THEN the schedule may need some changing in order to protect the child’s growth and recovery in the long term. Children’s wish to keep both parents in their lives, and their long term need for the involvement of both parents – THAT is the nugget to attend to in this chunk of the data. The research suggests for children of all ages that BOTH parents need regular and frequent access to the kids. Both parents need to remain in the children’s world and be fully engaged in their school, their social, and their day to day home lives.
Many parents worry that downsizing post-divorce will, in itself, traumatize their children. The research data say – not so much. Children can cope with moving from a four bedroom colonial to a two bedroom apartment, but if either parent is actively worried about paying the rent, or keeping on the heat, the children will feel that stress. When divorcing parents can look at the family financial pie and insure that both parents have ENOUGH of it to avoid financial strain in paying the bills, children are protected in the long run.
References (a sampling):
Ahrons, C. (1994) The Good Divorce.
Ahrons, C. (2004) We’re Still Family.
Amato, P.R. & Gilbreth, J.G. (1999). Non-resident fathers and children’s well-being: a meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 61. 557-573.
Baris, M.A., Coates, C.A., Duvall, B.B., Garrity, C.B., et al. (2001). Working with high conflict families of divorce.
Cummings, E. & Davies, P. (1994). Children and Marital Conflict.
Emery, Robert (2006) . The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with Emotions so You and Your Children Can Thrive.
Garrity, C.B. & Baris, M.A. (1994) Caught in the Middle: Protecting the Children of High Conflict Divorce.
Hetherington, E.M., Bridges, M. & Insabella, G.M. (1998). What matters? What does not? Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children’s adjustments. American Psychologist, 53. 167-184.
Huddart, J.L. & Demson, S.R. ( Summer, 2005). Listening to Children in the Collaborative Process. The Collaborative Review. 19-24.
Kelly, J. (2000). Children’s adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce: A decade of review of research. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 39. 963-973.
Kelly, J. & Lamb, M. (2000). Using child development research to make appropriate custody and access decisions for young children. Overnights and Young Children: Essays from the Family Court Review, 13 – 28.
Maccoby, E. & Mnookin, R. (1992). Dividing the Child.
Mercer, D. & Pruett, M. (2001) Your Divorce Advisor.
Pruett, M.K., Ebling, R. & insabella, G. (2004). Critical Aspects of Parenting Plans for Young Children: Interjecting Data into the Debate about Overnights. Overnights and Young Children. Essays from the Family Court Review. 85-103.
Warshak, R.A. Blanket Restrictions: Overnight Contact Between Parents and Young Children (2000). Overnights and Young Children: Essays from The Family Court Review 45-69.
There are many other helpful data points that the current body of divorce research can offer us, but today’s blog needs to come to a close. I will be writing a multi-part series on this blog site that looks at the research, and what the data tell us about how to protect our children from the fall out of divorce. Please look for upcoming installments.