The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review


Until the 1980s, mental health professionals appeared to be divided about whether divorce had long-lasting negative effects on children or whether it was, in fact, a benign or even positive experience for children. In the 1960s and 1970s, as many countries moved towards more liberal divorce laws, there was a prevalent belief that it was better for children to go through the temporary struggle of their parent’s separation than for them to live in a family where one or both parents were unhappy.

Richard Gardner (1970: xix), known more recently for his ideas about parental alienation, wrote: "the child living with unhappily married parents more often gets into psychiatric difficulties than the one whose mismatched parents have been healthy and strong enough to sever the troubled relationship."

Several clinical studies (Felner, 1984; Felner and Terre, 1987; Peterson et al., 1984; Rutter, 1981) lend support to this position, generally concluding that pre-divorce marital discord may be a more potent negative influence on children’s subsequent adjustment than the separation or divorce itself. Rutter (1981) states that child separation from his/her intact family constitutes a potential cause for short-term distress, but is of little direct importance as a cause of long-term disorder.

The idea that divorce is a transitory stress in children’s lives was commented on by the 1975 Law Reform Commission of Canada (Richardson, 1996: 233), which suggested "divorce is not necessarily destructive to family life." Since many divorced people remarry, the Commission stated "divorce may sometimes offer a constructive solution to marital conflict through the provision of new and more viable homes for spouses and children."

Studies that portray divorce as a difficult transition period with relatively benign after-effects for children are in the minority. The majority of research studies show that divorce is an extremely difficult period for children and conclude that the immediate and long-term negative outcomes can be very serious.

These studies can be divided into four types:

Studies that list negative outcomes for children

A number of research studies have followed children after their parents divorce and found that these children show a consistent pattern of problems in their emotional, development, academic and social lives. Jacobson (1978b) connected children’s maladjustment to their parents’ divorce in symptomatic areas with parental hostility after divorce, including hyperactivity, learning disability, immature behaviour, psychotic behaviour, and social deviance. Amato and Keith’s (1991a) analysis of 31 other studies challenged the prevalent argument that parental divorce presents few problems for children’s long-term development, and concluded that children are often negatively effected by parental divorce in the following areas:

In a second meta-analysis of 92 studies, Amato and Keith (1991b) concluded that parental divorce appears to be detrimental to the well-being of children in the following areas:

In another meta-analysis of divorce studies, Amato (1994) concludes that children from divorced families exhibit:

In a study of 121 children whose parents had divorced, Healy et al. (1993) tracked the effects of self-blame by children after their parents’ divorce. Children who lived in families where there was more hostility between parents after divorce were more likely to blame themselves for the situation, and this self-blame tended to result in a lower sense of self-competence, higher rates of psychological symptoms and more behaviour problems. Similarly, adults who experienced parental divorce as children score significantly lower on a variety of psychological, interpersonal and socio-economic indicators than do adults who grew up in intact families.

Franklin et al. (1990) conducted research to determine how divorce affects college-aged children’s beliefs about marriage and personal trust. Their study of 568 university students showed that children whose parents had divorced were much more pessimistic about their own possible marriages than children from intact families. Further study showed that this pessimism was restricted to marriage and did not carry over to other areas of interpersonal trust.

Guidubaldi and Perry (1985) looked at patterns of children’s adjustment problems after divorce for 699 children followed for two years. They found that children from divorced families rated more poorly in areas of social behaviour, emotional development and incidence of psychological symptoms than did children from intact families.

A Canadian survey, the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, has so far resulted in a number of reported studies of divorce, including Willms (1996), Lipman et al. (1996), Cheal (1996) and Haddad (1998). These studies are interesting since they do not generally support the findings of most other research concerning the direct link between divorce and negative outcomes for children nor the intensity of the reported negative outcomes. The exact reasons for these differences are not clear.

Willms (1996) reported that children in grades 2, 4 and 6 living in single parent families, often but not exclusively the result of parental separation, scored on average about 20 percent lower than children living in two-parent families.

Lipman et al. (1996) reported surprising results when comparing emotional, behavioural and social problems of children living in single parent families and two-parent families. This study reported that while children living with only one parent are at greater risk of developing these types of personal problems, the majority of children who show these problems live in two-parent families. The risk factor for these children is probably connected with the trend of single parent families, especially those headed by a female, to have significantly less income than other family types, and low income after divorce has been noted as a significant risk factor for children in many other studies.

Cheal’s (1996) study of 875 children living with step-parents showed that these children are often stressed by the step-parent relationship, but evidence was inconclusive about whether these step-parent relationships put children at greater risk of physical abuse. This finding is not in keeping with other studies which show that step-parenting arrangements, particularly those of a stepfather with female children does put the child at more risk of abuse. The introduction of new adult partners also has been shown in other studies to be a factor that increases risk for children in terms of emotional and social adjustment related to divorce.

Haddad (1998) reported that 15.7 percent of Canadian children under the age of 12 reside in single parent families, often as the result of parental divorce, and 8.6 percent of children live either in a reconstituted family or with adults who are not their biological parents. This study showed that divorce is only weakly related to children’s emotional or behavioural problems. The study also showed that there was no significant difference in the problems manifested by children living in joint custody arrangements, those living with maternal sole custody arrangements, and those living with paternal sole custody arrangements.

Studies that identify the emotional, relationship, and structural/environmental factors that contribute toward positive outcomes for children after separation and divorce

Kurdek and Siesky (1981) identified certain factors that contribute to positive adjustment by children, including:

In a study of 51 families with an arrangement for joint physical custody, Steinman et al. (1985) identified a list of factors that lead to successful joint physical custody. Families who successfully maintained joint custody had the following qualities:

Buchanan et al. (1981) found that one factor, the ongoing relationship between both parents and the child, was the primary predictor of positive outcomes for children.

Studies that identify the emotional, relationship and structural/environmental factors that contribute to negative outcomes for children after divorce

Felton (1979) concluded that the children’s ability to adjust to divorce was most often linked to the parent’s sense of loss as a result of the divorce.

Jacobson’s (1978b) study of 51 children concluded that the higher the level of parental conflict, the higher the potential for children’s maladaptive behaviour, and noted that exposure to violent behaviour is the most troublesome factor for children’s adjustment to divorce.

Kurdek and Siesky (1981) identified several factors that contribute to children’s negative adjustment to divorce:

Peterson and Zill (1986) identified factors that result in negative outcomes for children:

Stolberg et al. (1987) identified practical and emotional predictors of children’s negative adjustment to separation and divorce as:

Kalter et al. (1989) reviewed the literature and identified six prominent hypotheses about the ways that divorce might negatively affect children. These include:

Peterson and Zill (1986) found several links between children’s adjustment and divorce:

Amato (1993) identified five factors that connect with the children’s adjustment to divorce:

Furstenberg (1990), using the U.S. National Survey of Children, reported on factors that appear to increase the risk of adjustment problems for children after divorce. Two major factors are:

Kelly and Wallerstein (1976) found that young children under the age of eight struggle with increased feelings of:

Kelly and Wallerstein (1977), showed a strong connection between children’s psychological adjustment and the overall quality of life in the parent’s post-divorce family construction or remarried family. When the parents appeared settled and when stable new partners were introduced, the children managed well. However, if the parents continued to show upset, or if several difficult adult relationships were introduced into the child’s life, the children continued to show distress at the same level as the first year after divorce.

Parental conflict and inter-parental hostility are mentioned often in these studies, but there is no universal definition of what these terms mean. Many of these studies rely on self reporting by children and parents, and each participant may have a different definition for parental or high conflict and also a different threshold of tolerance for this type of behaviour.

Perhaps no one in North America is more clearly associated with the study of divorce and its long-term effects for children than Judith Wallerstein. Together with her colleagues at the Centre for Families in Transition, Wallerstein has continued to study 131 children from 60 divorced families since 1970. A sample of her research studies (Kelly and Wallerstein, 1976, 1977; Lewis and Wallerstein, 1987; Wallerstein, 1987, 1991; Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1989; Wallerstein et al., 1985; Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980; Wallerstein and Lewis, 1998) shows that children whose parents divorce tend to show the following difficulties: