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[1] 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[2]. According to the report, in the late 1980s, approximately 74,000 children became "children of divorce"[3].

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.