Voice and Support: Programs for Children Experiencing Parental Separation and Divorce
2. Children's responses and adjustment to parental separation and divorce
The research literature on the effects of separation and divorce on children's adjustment, and on children's responses to these events, indicates that the needs of children living through family breakdown vary with age and circumstance. The research also indicates that many parents are not able to meet these needs, especially during the period immediately after separation.
Family breakdown is typically very stressful for parents as well as children. Researchers agree that this period produces acute emotional and psychological disturbance for most parents and children (Lamb et al. 1997). Most children are acutely distressed during the first year or so after separation (Lamb et al. 1997). Some researchers have found acute symptoms and stress among children still at peak levels two years after their parents' separation (citations in Lamb et al. 1997), and one study found children and parents less distressed two months after separation than they were a year later (Hetherington et al. 1992, cited in Grych and Fincham 1992).
Still, a recent summary of more than 200 research reports (mostly from the United Kingdom) concluded that children's stress is usually short-term and usually fades over time (Rodgers and Pryor 1998). Similarly, a group of American experts recently concluded that, after their initial distress and difficulties, most children who experience parental separation and divorce will develop into adults without identifiable psychological or social scars or other adverse consequences (e.g., Lamb et al. 1997; Kelly 2000; Kelly 1993; Amato 1994).
2.1 Initial Responses of Children at Different Ages
The research suggests that children's responses to their parents' divorce and separation vary widely. Indeed, some children may become happier and less distressed when their parents separate (Amato 1994). Nonetheless, studies have identified general pathways of children's reactions in the first two years after parental separation and divorce, based on gender and stage of development (age) (see citations in Hodges 1991; Amato 1994). Almost no research exists on infants' or college-aged children's responses. For children between these ages, the responses can be summarized as follows.
- Preschoolers (2 to 5 years). These children are too young to grasp the meaning of divorce, and so are likely to become confused and fearful of losing their other parent too. They tend to blame themselves for their parents' divorce. Many regress developmentally, becoming aggressive and throwing tantrums, especially boys.
- Younger elementary school-aged children (5 to 8 years old). These children can understand the meaning of divorce enough to become depressed (Kelly 1988, cited in Di Bias 1996; Hodges 1991), grief-stricken and sad over the loss of family. Many continue to wish for parental reconciliation. They may also feel profound conflict of loyalties (Peterson and Zill 1986, and Brady et al. 1986, cited in Fischer 1997). They are egocentric enough to see divorce as a personal rejection, but may be mature enough to place the blame elsewhere, usually on a parent. Studies show that children at this age may suffer in school and in their social relationships (Demo and Adcock 1988, and Bloom and Dawson 1991, cited in Di Bias 1996). Half of their teachers in one study reported behaviour changes (see citation in Hodges 1991).
- Older elementary school-age children (9 to 12 years old). These children may also be depressed, sad and grief-stricken, but are also more likely to blame and be angry with one or both parents. Children at this age can also see the world from the parents' point of view, however, and may start to parent a struggling parent or younger siblings.
- Adolescents (12 to 16 years old) are less dependent on the family, and therefore divorce would seem to be less significant to them. Still, self-esteem drops for many teenagers (but more so for children) during parental divorce. It may lead adolescents to question their own future ability to maintain a long-term relationship with a partner, and many feel considerable anger towards one or both parents. Also, divorce may trigger delayed or accelerated entry into adolescence. At the extreme, adolescents may become suicidal or delinquent (McKinnon and Wallerstein 1986, cited in Di Bias 1996).
2.2 Children's Responses to further transition and change
Studies also show that parents' remarriage and the birth of more children to the remarried parent can be very distressful for children of the first marriage (and have lasting impact on their long-term adjustment). Parents' remarriage when children are adolescents, in particular, tends to result in more sustained problems in family relationships and the adolescents' adjustment (e.g. Hetherington 1991, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993). Some researchers have found that young children who appear to have adapted well to their new family situations may have re-emerging problems at adolescence (Bray and Berger 1992, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993). The step-families themselves tend to be less cohesive, more distant in their relationships, more flexible in response to change, and lacking in clear role expectations (see citations in Bray and Hetherington 1993). They are also more susceptible to stress (Anderson and White 1986, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993).
Even when no critical events re-ignite their distress, some children experience ongoing difficulties after family breakdown that result in poor adjustment and a difficult adulthood. The factors found to produce poor outcomes tend to be present either before, during or after separation, or to arise in the context of children's post-separation lives. These are discussed in the next section.
2.3 Children's long-term adjustment
A substantial body of research exists on the impact of divorce and separation on children's adjustment. This research is typically cross-sectional, and aims to identify comparative levels of adjustment for children of parental separation and divorce, and the factors associated with poor outcomes. Standard measures of adjustment for children during childhood include anti-social behaviour, decline in school achievement, and states of anxiety, depression and self-esteem. Measures of long-term adjustment are largely social and economic, including educational achievement, work force attachment and divorce rates. Since much of the cross-sectional research uses the basic categories of divorced/not divorced, short-term effects are often conflated with long-term effects.
Early studies showed that children of divorce were more likely to exhibit aggressive, impulsive and anti-social behaviour, to have more social difficulties, to be less compliant to authority, and to show more problem behaviours at school (e.g. Camera and Resnick 1988; Emery 1988; Hetherington et al. 1982; Kurdek and Berg 1983; Warshak and Santrock 1983; Zill 1983; cited in Kelly 1993). They have also been shown to have lower academic achievement, more negative self-concepts and more problematic relationships with both mothers and fathers (Amato and Keith 1991, cited in Amato 1994). As adults, they have been shown to have lower psychological well-being, less education, less marital satisfaction, more behavioural problems, more risk of divorce and poorer physical health (Amato 1994). One recent longitudinal British study found the odds ratio for being above the clinical level on mental health problems was 1.70 at age 23 and 1.85 at age 33 (Rodgers et al. 1997, cited in Wolchik et al. 2000).
Recent surveys of the literature show that, overall, there is a greater probability of poor outcomes for children from separated families, and that these can be observed many years after separation, even into adulthood (Rodgers and Pryor 1998; Kelly 2000; Amato 1994). However, more recent studies, and studies with more sophisticated methodology, report fewer differences between these two groups than did earlier studies, and that the size of the differences is small (Kelly 2000; Amato 1994). For measures such as self-esteem, most studies indicate no difference between children and adolescents of divorced families and children whose parents are still together, after temporary declines at separation (Kelly 1993). Most divorced children fall within the average range of adjustment on standardized measures (Amato 1994). Even some of the effects persisting into adulthood eventually seem to dissipate. The mental health risks of British children of divorce escalated into adolescence and young adulthood, but by age 33 most persons who experienced parental divorce as children were not distinguishable from children from never-divorced families (Chase-Lansdale et al. 1995, cited in Rodgers and Pryor 1998).
This said, researchers believe that aspects of the divorce experience clearly increase risk for many children, particularly for those who face greater risks when their parents separate and divorce (Emery 1999; Hetherington 1999; McLanahan 1999; cited in Kelly 2000).
In addition, qualitative studies have identified persistent, emotional issues for children of parental divorce and separation that follow them into adulthood. For example, one prominent Californian study found that 40 percent of the children were still depressed five years after the divorce (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980, cited in Di Bias 1996). Ten years after the separation, the children still felt sad, regretful or "different," and were concerned about the risks involved in future marriage themselves (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980, cited in Pedro-Carroll and Cowen 1985). In adulthood, only 60 percent of them were married, compared to 80 percent from intact families, and 38 percent had children, compared to 61 percent of children from intact families (Wallerstein et al. 2000, cited in Anon 2000). Another recent study found that college students whose parents divorced before they were adolescents reported more painful childhood experiences than children from intact families, but they did not differ in measures of depression or anxiety (Laumann-Billings and Emery in press, cited in Kelly 2000).
2.3.1 Adjustment by Gender, Age and other Characteristics
The most recent research would appear to contradict the conventional view that divorce has more negative impacts on boys than on girls. One meta-analysis of studies that distinguished the impacts of divorce on girls and boys found more negative impact on boys than on girls, but only with respect to certain measures: social relationships, loneliness and cooperativeness. In other areas, such as academic attachment, boys suffer no more detrimental consequences than girls do (Amato and Keith 1991, cited in Amato 1994). However, a large nationwide study in the United States recently found no gender differences linked to divorce (Vandewater and Lansford 1998, cited in Kelly 2000; Rodgers and Pryor 1998). Another study found that adjustment and achievement in boys and girls after their parents' divorce varied by age, time since the divorce, type of parenting, and the type and extent of parental conflict (Hetherington 1999, cited in Kelly 2000).
Younger children's responses to their parents' separation seem more acute, and early studies showed that divorce had the most adverse impact on young children (e.g. Allison and Furstenberg 1989, cited in Grych and Fincham, 1992). However, many studies confound children's age at the time of divorce with the length of time passed since divorce, and age of assessment (Grych and Fincham 1992). The recent survey of largely British studies concluded that the child's age at the time of parental separation is not important in itself (Rodgers and Pryor 1998). One North American study found that young adults in low-conflict divorced-parent families were less well-adjusted than youngsters in high-conflict families whose parents divorced (Amato et al. 1995, cited in Kelly 2000). The California study found that after 10 years, the children who were younger at the time of separation had adjusted better than children who were older at that time (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989, cited in Amato 1994).
Multiple divorces also can expose children to repeated episodes of conflict, diminished parenting and financial hardship. For some children the stress of divorce therefore accumulates through childhood as it repeats (Amato 1994; Rodgers and Pryor 1998). The risk of adverse outcomes for children in stepfamilies compared to children in lone-parent families appears higher for older children, especially in lower school achievement, problems with sexual activity and forming relationships (Rodgers and Pryor 1998).
Individual children's resilience also affects the likelihood of their positive long-term adjustment. Children in high-conflict families, or with a poorly adjusted primary parent, may still fare well because of inner resources. There is no way to predict how two individual children in similar circumstances will fare (Fischer 1997). Some experts have proposed more adaptable temperament, higher intelligence, and better coping skills as indicators of more resilience (Johnston 1994). One study found that children's temperaments did not affect their behavioural adaptiveness after parental divorce when they had social supports, but did affect their capacity to withstand the divorce without social supports (Hetherington 1989, cited in Grych and Fincham 1992). Resilience is thought to have its roots in the child's early attachment to a parent or parent figure (e.g. Rutter 1979, cited in Kelly and Lamb 2000). Nevertheless, intervention can enhance resilience.
2.3.2 Research Limits
There is relatively little research on how divorce and separation affects non-white, non-middle class children. Most existing English-language studies are about American children. Some research in the U.S. shows that African-American children are put less at risk by having a single parent and by post-separation poverty than are white American children and African-American children in intact families (see citations and discussion in Amato 1994).
Recent research is cautious about attributing the poor outcomes experienced by some children of divorce to the separation and divorce. It is also cautious about identifying the individual factors operating before, during or after the divorce which determine poor outcomes (Rodgers and Pryor 1998). Several factors do emerge as important, although their interrelationship is unclear. Moreover, researchers are also studying how positive factors can buffer children against negative factors (e.g. Wolchik et al. 2000).
Based on existing largely cross-sectional studies, children's acute distress at the time of parental separation, and their later responses to their resulting residential arrangements, are not important factors in children's long-term adjustment. However, there has been little exploration of the effects of children's acute distress at parental separation (the critical event for them) on their long-term adjustment (Grych and Fincham 1992). The authors of the comprehensive British study called for more research on how short-term distress may affect long-term outcomes (Rodgers and Pryor 1998).
2.3.3 Custodial Parent's Adjustment
Current thinking supports the widespread view that the custodial parent's adjustment is a key factor in children's long-term well-being. Children with poorly adjusted custodial parents are at much higher risk of faring poorly (citations in Kelly 2000). Children are more likely to fare well when the custodial parent is in good mental health, has good social supports and has good child-rearing skill, i.e. is affectionate, supervises the child adequately, exercises some control, explains rules, avoids harsh discipline and disciplines consistently (e.g. Wallerstein 1986-87; see citations in Amato 1994, Hetherington 1999, Buchanan et al. 1996, cited in Kelly 2000).
Another recent study has shown that children in lone-parent families whose mothers discipline consistently and accept their child—the two key features of authoritative parenting—have fewer internalizing (e.g. depression) and externalizing (e.g. truancy) problems than children whose mothers do not (Wolchik et al. 2000). The custodial parent's consistent and accepting parenting therefore seems to buffer children against adverse effects from other sources of stress, such as economic hardship. Children who perceive low acceptance and less consistency from parents become more vulnerable to stress, and the children perceiving low acceptance and consistency who experience many stressors are the most vulnerable of all (Wolchik et al. 2000).
2.3.4 Access to the Non-Residential Parent
Existing research offers no consensus on the importance of children's ongoing relationship with their non-residential parent, typically the father (see citations in O'Connor 2001; Kelly 2000). Most large-scale studies using a national database have found no relationship between frequency of access parent's visits and child adjustment (Kelly 2000). However, several studies report positive outcomes for children in cooperative, low-conflict families in which fathers are involved with their children (citations in O'Connor 2001, and in Kelly 2000). Children are more likely to fare poorly with fathers' ongoing access in certain high-conflict families, especially boys in these families (O'Connor 2001). One meta-analysis of 57 studies also found that more recent studies of father-child contact provide stronger evidence of the father's impact on children's adjustment than do earlier studies (Amato and Gilbreth 1999, cited in Kelly 2000). The overview of largely British studies concluded that continuing contact with the non-residential parent may benefit children's adjustment, but there is no simple relationship with frequency of contact (Rodgers and Pryor 1998).
The ongoing involvement of non-residential parents with their children does seem to be clearly linked to their academic achievement. Children's academic functioning declines less when fathers are involved with the child's school and schoolwork after separation (McLanahan 1999, cited in Kelly 2000). Children of divorce are also less likely to earn a university degree, in part because parental aspirations for educational achievement increase for adolescents in never-divorced families, but decrease for adolescents in divorced households (McLanahan 1999, cited in Kelly 2000). The California study also found that the divorced fathers were often unwilling to fund their children's post-secondary education, especially if they had remarried and had other children (Wallerstein and Lewis 1998).
2.3.5 Post-Separation Conflict
A growing body of literature affirms that post-separation conflict among parents increases children's risk of poor outcomes. Children whose parents remain hostile and aggressive, locked in ongoing high conflict are more likely to have behavioural problems, emotional difficulties and social difficulties (Johnston 1994). They are also more likely to lack self-esteem (Kelly 1993). The risk of poor outcomes increases when spousal violence is involved, and rises even higher when the children are abused (Johnston 1994). Even so, studies have found that overall adjustment scores for most children of chronically-litigating, high-conflict post-divorce families also fall in the normal range (Johnston et al. 1989, cited in Kelly 1993).
Longitudinal studies have found that some difficulties observed in some children of divorce existed prior to divorce (e.g. Elliott and Richards 1991, cited in Kelly 1993), suggesting that the factors producing these difficulties may pre-date the divorce or separation. The recent analysis of British studies concluded that family conflict before, during and after separation can be stressful for children. There is no agreement about whether children's maladjustment resulting from parental conflict is largely a result of conflict during the marriage or after its break-up (Rodgers and Pryor 1998).
2.3.6 Economic Hardship
Divorce and separation often produce a substantial decline in the children's standard of living, increasing economic instability and stress in the custodial home. These changes intensify the stress of separation's disruptiveness for children and affect their long-term adjustment (Kelly 1993; citations in Amato 1994). Studies have shown that custodial mothers' incomes drop by an average of 30 percent in the United States after divorce (Lamb et al. 1997). In Canada, incomes of women who separated from their spouses in the mid-1990s dropped an average of 23 percent during the first year (adjusted for the number of people they had living with them), and by the end of the first year, single mothers' average incomes were 31 percent less than their pre-separation income (Galarneau and Sturrock 1997).
One U.S. study found that income differences after separation accounted for about half the association between living in a single-parent family and completing high school among white families (McLanahan 1985, cited in Amato 1994). More recently, it has been estimated that the economic problems of divorced households account for as much as half of the adjustment problems seen in divorced children (McLanahan 1999, cited in Kelly 2000). Another study found that divorced children's poorer showings on 27 out of 34 outcomes, dropped to 13 when income differences were taken into account (Guidubaldi et al. 1983, cited in Amato 1994).
Custodial mothers also experience high rates of job instability and changes in residence in the first three years after the separation (McLanahan and Booth 1989, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993). Many mothers move to poorer neighbourhoods, with fewer services and supports. Children are pulled away from their friends, other social supports and familiar surroundings. (Access parents may also move to different neighbourhoods, with similar, if less harmful, results for the children.)
2.4 Long-Term Adjustment Difficulties Stemming From the Children Themselves
The results of the cross-sectional research suggest that long-term adjustment of children of divorce is best fostered by programs that help their parents' adjust, address social and economic stressors, reduce inter-parental conflict and recurrent litigation over custody and access, and foster cooperative post-separation parenting arrangements with strong ties between children and both their parents.
However, as indicated earlier, the links between children's acute distress during parental separation and their long-term adjustment have yet to be fully explored. For example, the more acute a child's distress, the more difficult it may be for the mother to recover her own equilibrium and maintain positive relationships with her child (Wolchik et al. 2000).
Other research also indicates several ways in which children's own responses to the separation and later circumstances can affect their adjustment. This research provides a rationale for specific programs for children during parental separation, and in later years.
2.4.1 Six "Tasks" of Adjustment
Prominent researchers agree that children who do not rebound from their initial distress and difficulties at the time of their parents' separation, or during subsequent critical events, can be expected to face difficulties later on, often in adulthood (Lamb et al. 1997). Qualitative researcher Judith Wallerstein has developed a list of six "tasks" that children must accomplish during the separation period and after, in order to stay on their developmental paths and mature into well-adjusted adults (Wallerstein 1983). Children need to complete the following tasks regardless of the number and kind of external stressors in their post-separation family arrangements:
- acknowledge the reality of the separation;
- disengage from parental conflict and distress, and resume customary pursuits;
- resolve their loss;
- resolve anger and self-blame;
- accept the permanence of the divorce or separation; and
- achieve realistic hope regarding relationships.
In Wallerstein's view, high priority should be given to ensuring that parents' and children's acute distress responses to separation and divorce do not consolidate and become chronic (Wallerstein 1991), making them harder to root out later.
The tasks fall in a sequence with varying time spans for each. The first two tasks, for example, should be mastered immediately to maintain the child's academic and developmental progress (Wallerstein 1983). These tasks have become the basis of many of the programs currently providing support to children experiencing parental separation and divorce (see e.g. Fischer 1997).
Clearly, children need cooperation from family and environment to accomplish some of these tasks. For example, parents who continually engage their children in their intense conflicts, or in family violence or bullying, will make it virtually impossible for the children to resume their cognitive, emotional and behavioural development at school and elsewhere. Similarly, parents who blame their children for the separation, or for their own failure to recover emotionally from the rupture, will make it extremely difficult for their children to stop blaming themselves. Interventions may be needed to help children get back on their development pathway in spite of their parents' negative influence.
Parents and outsiders may also be positive forces in helping children accomplish these tasks. For example, parents and outsiders can successfully reassure small children that they are not responsible for the separation and that they are still loved (Hodges 1991). Interventions may therefore be able to help children accomplish all these tasks, especially during the period of parental separation.
2.4.2 Increasing Coping Capacity
Research also suggests that children in difficult post-separation circumstances may be able to offset the effects of some stressors by increasing their coping skills and their resilience to adversity. Much of this research has focussed on children in high-conflict families. Early studies on high-conflict post-separation parenting indicated that all children in such families were at risk of poor long-term adjustment. Other research, however, narrows the negative impacts to high-conflict families in which the conflict prevents parents from cooperating in their post-separation parenting (Camera and Resnick 1989, cited in Kelly 1993; Amato and Rezac 1994). Some parents are able to find ways to cooperate in their post-separating parenting in spite of their intense conflicts. Parents who cannot do this tend to make their children pawns in their own conflict. Studies show that children are at risk when the ongoing high conflict results in the child feeling caught in the middle (Buchanan et al. 1991; Johnston et al. 1989, cited in Kelly 1993).
These studies measured "feeling caught" according to how often one parent asked the child to carry messages to the other parent, asked intrusive questions about the other parent, or made the child feel that he or she had to hide information or feelings about the other parent. One study showed that adolescents in high-conflict families were more likely to feel caught than adolescents in low-conflict families, but that 40 percent of the high-conflict families were still below the median on "feeling caught" (Kelly 1993). The research implies that helping children learn ways to stay out of their parents' conflict insulates them against it and allows them to get on with their own development.
Some researchers have also argued that specific children's programs are worthwhile even though their adjustment is largely determined by external factors, because children's responses may be more amenable to change than these circumstances (Grych and Fincham 1992).
2.4.3 Understanding the Separation and Divorce, Including the Legal Processes
There is little research on children's own perspectives on their experience of divorce and separation. What research exists indicates that children are often misinformed about divorce as an event and a process (Pruett 1999). Moreover, what they do know is often inappropriate, frightening and confusing (Pruett 1999), and is likely to exacerbate their distress.
There is considerable evidence that many parents do not talk with their children about the significance of the separation and the attendant legal processes (e.g. Mitchell 1985, Walczak and Burns 1984, cited in Garwood 1990; Lyon et al. 1998; Wallerstein and Lewis 1998). Children interviewed during a recent evaluation of Scotland's Parent Information Programme for divorcing and separating parents, for example, reported that most of their parents had not discussed the issues surrounding the divorce with them in any great detail (Mayes et al. 2001). Only one third had talked to their children about their own feelings, and a similar proportion said they had discussed their child's feelings in relation to the separation (Mayes et al. 2001. Yet, one half of the 84 Scottish parents who refused to involve their children in family conciliation at the Lothian Family Conciliation Service near Edinburgh between 1986 and 1988 (slightly more than half the parents in the two-year study) considered it unnecessary, saying they could speak with their children themselves (Garwood 1990).
One recent in-depth study of 22 Connecticut children found, however, that children nonetheless patch together images of the divorce process from listening to their parents, their own experience of the court process, and televised court processes (Pruett 1999). But confusion about what the divorce meant was the rule rather than the exception. Blame, loss and fears of separation and abandonment were frequent themes, especially among children in high-conflict families. The children's own perception of parental incompetence became jumbled with their understanding of the legal process of separation, so that the parents' physical separation and the attendant court processes were equated with loss of the relationships with their parents.
Children also felt violated and betrayed by lawyers and court officials who
"took their parents' money," or
"made orders that made their parents fight," while "pretending" to help the family. They had too much information about the court process that was not helpful and too little that was (Pruett 1999). The authors concluded that parents and legal professionals should be helped to understand what children need to know and how to provide that information to them.
The recent British study also concluded that clear explanations about "what" is happening and "why" can help maintain communication and contact between children and parents during the stressful time of divorce. Keeping children informed can also reassure young children that they are not being abandoned and that a parent can still be a parent even if he or she leaves the home to live elsewhere (Rodgers and Pryor 1998). The first two of Wallerstein's six tasks also imply that children must be told the significance of their parents' separation as it is taking place. Other experts argue that even pre-schoolers have strong needs for information about their parents' separation (Hodges 1991).
Teenagers and young adults who are asked to comment on their experiences during their parents' separation and divorce complain strongly about having been left in the dark (Lyon et al. 1998; Wallerstein and Lewis 1998). Not knowing what was happening left these children resentful and angry long after their anxiety and fears caused by the separation had dissipated.
There are no clear links between children's emotional understanding of parental separation (which one would hope their cognitive understanding would facilitate) and their adjustment. Evaluation in the 1980s of a children's program found no connections between the child participants' emotional understanding of divorce (that they were not to blame, that reconciliation was unlikely, but that they would not be abandoned) and their emotional and behavioural adjustment (Roseby and Deutsch 1985, cited in Grych and Fincham 1992). Children in the program did improve their understanding, but this made no difference to their adjustment compared to that of children in a control group. On the other hand, the other children's mere participation in a placebo control group may have affected their adjustment (Grych and Fincham 1992).
2.5 Parents' Capacity to Help Children Adjust
Parents would seem to be the obvious ones to help children accomplish their "six tasks" and rebound from their acute distress at their parents' separation. Research does show that supportive parenting during this time buffers children against acute stress (Brown 1995; Bray and Hetherington 1993; Tschann et al. 1990, cited in Bonney 1993), just as well-adjusted parents foster children's longer term adjustment.
However, research also shows that parents generally are least able to help their children during this time. Many researchers believe that parents' capacity to nurture and protect their children diminishes markedly in the year or two following separation and divorce (e.g. Wallerstein and Kelly 1980, cited in Wallerstein 1986-87, 1991; Lamb et al. 1997; Amato 1994). Parents are overwhelmed themselves, and so have less time, emotional energy, and attention for their children when their children need it most.
Custodial mothers complain of economic distress, task overload, child-rearing distress and social isolation in the immediate aftermath of divorce (Hetherington et al. 1982, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993). Both mothers and fathers, regardless of custodial arrangements, are more likely to have physical and psychological problems just after the separation or divorce (Hetherington and Hagan, 1986, cited in Bray and Hetherington 1993).
As a result, parents may become less warm and supportive toward their children, less sensitive to their needs, and more erratic in exercising parental authority. Research has shown that parents spend less time with their children, become more erratic or lax in supervising their children, and get angry with them much more often during the first year or two after the separation or divorce (Hetherington et al. 1982, cited in Wallerstein 1991). One researcher believes that some parents may unconsciously (or even consciously) want to abandon the child as part of erasing memories of the unhappy event. Other parents may become more attached to their children, but in a dependent way, so that the child starts to feel responsible for their well-being (Wallerstein 1986‑87). In her longitudinal study of 130 divorced or separated families in California, Wallerstein identified three related family functions that she concluded combine to protect the child in normal circumstances: (1) a reasonably harmonious relationship between the parents involving mutual support; (2) a reasonably sensitive and disciplined parent-child relationship, and (3) a reasonably psychologically intact, moral parent. Her study also found that all these functions were under assault during divorce and separation (e.g. Wallerstein 1986-87, 1991).
One result of their diminished parenting capacity is that parents get out of touch with their children's needs and feelings (Mitchell 1985, cited in Garwood 1990; Wallerstein and Kelly 1980, cited in Wallerstein 1991). They not only support their children less, they are also less likely to see that they need support. Wallerstein gives an example from her research of parents in mediation who were focussed on issues of what diet the children should have during visits. Meanwhile, one of the children was increasingly unable to distinguish his fantasies from reality and the other, when asked to draw her family, drew only a scrawny black rat, a warning signal of acute distress (Wallerstein 1991).
The research shows that one reason parents fall out of touch with the children is lack of parent-child communication during the period of separation and divorce. Moreover, this lack of communication often includes an absence of explanation about the separation or divorce, as indicated above (Mitchell 1985, Walczak and Burns 1984, cited in Garwood 1990).
Parents are often equally unaware during this period of the harmful effects their own behaviour may be having on their children. Research shows that parents typically underestimate or ignore the effects of their conflicts with the other spouse on their children. They also fail to realize they are putting their children in the middle of their conflict by demanding sole loyalty or by using the child to spy on or undermine the other parent (Arbuthnot and Gordon 1996; Arbuthnot et al. 1997).
Far from being able to help their children during the period of initial separation, many parents add to their children's stress. The research suggests that one effective way to help children during this time is to help parents recover from their own distress as quickly as possible, by reducing some of the stresses they face. Also, parenting programmes aim to focus parents on their children's needs and best interests during this period so they are better able to respond to them.
Nevertheless, given many parents' diminished capacities during this time, external supports are needed to help children understand what is happening to them, how to come to terms with the situation, and how to get through their distress. The primary needs seem to be threefold: (1) to reduce children's acute stress to help them sustain positive relationships with their parents and reduce the possibility that this stress will prevent them from accomplishing their six tasks, and (2) to help them accomplish the first two or three of their six tasks, and (3) to teach them ways to insulate themselves from external sources of stress, such as post-separation parental conflict. For some children, external supports such as children's groups may also meet a fourth need of providing them with a social or emotional support network.
The research shows that, just as most children recover from the acute distress of parental separation, most parents also recover and resume whatever caring and protective parenting they had provided before separation (and these recoveries are related) (Lamb et al. 1997). For most children, therefore, external supports may be needed most at the time of initial separation. For children in difficult post-separation circumstances, or children experiencing repeated separation and divorce, needs may continue well beyond this point.
2.6 What Children Say They Need
Just as little research exists on children's own perspectives on parental divorce and separation, little also exists on what children think they need, especially during the time of initial separation. Children consistently say that loss of regular contact with their non-residential parent is the worst thing about their parents' divorce (citations in Kelly 1993). Most children say they want contact (or more contact) with their non-residential parent (Lamb et al. 1997).
During the period of initial separation, children seem to want to talk about the separation with other children or sympathetic adults other than their parents. Three quarters of the children surveyed in the Scottish study of child-inclusive mediation at the Lothian Family Conciliation welcomed the idea of a children's group when asked if they wanted one (Garwood 1990).
Moreover, children interviewed in the recent evaluation of the Scottish Parent Information Programme reported wanting to talk about the separation with one or two "special people" other than their parents. Researchers evaluating a home-based course for families experiencing divorce also found that some children wanted to talk about the issues, but not with their parents (Hughes 2001). Researchers interviewing young Connecticut children on their understanding of their parents' separation (Pruett 1999) also concluded that the children hungered for trustworthy information regarding divorce, its procedures, and its characters. They were not getting this information from their parents.
Nonetheless, many children in the Scottish program voiced serious reservations about talking to others about their parents' separation. Reasons such as "not being able to trust people" and "feeling vulnerable" were given for not talking about their feelings. However, they appeared to realize that talking about how they felt was extremely important in dealing with parental separation (Mayes et al. 2001). Evaluation of the Centres jeunesse de Montréal's Confidences program found that less than five percent of the children in the program were unhappy to be there (Vallant 1999). Their most frequent reasons for enjoying it were that it gave them a chance to talk about the separation (12 percent) and meet other children in the same situation (11 percent). However, another 13 percent said they felt talking about the separation was boring.
As indicated above, one of the most frequent complaints of older children looking back on their experience of parental separation and divorce is that they were kept in the dark by parents and authorities (Lyon et al. 1998; citations to their earlier work, Wallerstein and Lewis 1998). Adolescents and young adults participating in a series of seminars in Liverpool, England, about including children's voices in custody and access proceedings were emphatic that children must be kept informed about the legal decisions being made on their behalf, the legal processes they are indirectly embroiled in, and the larger implications of their parents' divorce for their lives.
Report a problem on this page
- Date modified: