The Effects of Divorce on Children : A Selected Literature Review

4. Reducing negative impacts on children

Reducing the negative effects of divorce on children is often a complex task for parents and social service professionals. Since, as discussed previously, divorce affects children in a variety of ways, steps to reduce the negative impacts of divorce may need to be multi-faceted and specifically tailored to the needs and life circumstances of the particular child. The more severely children are affected, the more intense the intervention which is required, with some children needing attention from trained psychologists or counsellors. Other children may receive help from family or peers, or in their local environment. Research findings suggest several key ways of reducing the negative impacts of divorce on children, such as increasing the self- sufficiency of single mothers, reducing conflict between parents, investigating alternatives to court for deciding custody and access arrangements, improving access arrangements, and making use of support groups outside the immediate family.

4.1 Self-Sufficiency of Single Mothers

It has been found that while a large proportion of custodial mothers experience a downward financial spiral following divorce, a large proportion of divorced fathers experience an improved financial situation (Arditti, 1992). Furthermore, many single mothers that are awarded support and custody payments do not actually receive these awards. High non-compliance rates contribute to an unstable and insecure financial situation for custodial parents.

Although research has demonstrated that children’s adjustment does not appear to be solely based on their financial situation, enhancing the self-sufficiency of single mothers would make the custodial home more stable. In addition, a better financial situation may have indirect effects (such as better adjustment of the mother, better living environment, etc.) which has been shown to have an beneficial effects on children’s adjustment to divorce. Improved enforcement of spousal and child support awards would help in this regard.

4.2 Conflict/Communication

It is evident from the research that inter-parental conflict has a major impact on children’s post-divorce adjustment. Therefore, it is critical that parents attempt to reduce conflict among themselves. How to accomplish this, however, may be quite difficult, especially when there are long-standing hostilities. At the very least, as suggested by Hetherington and Camara (1988) and Devine (1996), children should not be directly exposed to the conflict. As well, some of the therapeutic programs discussed below may aid in accomplishing this objective.

If it appears that there is no way to reduce the conflict, or if one or both of the parents are unwilling to try, it may be necessary to examine the option of sole custody arrangements with little or no visitation for the non-custodial parent. In cases where spousal abuse has occurred, this may be the only viable solution. Another way of reducing conflict may involve access arrangements where a third party is involved in transferring the child between parents. In these circumstances, a third party (such as a relative or the police) is the "go-between" when the child is going from one parent to the other, and the parents do not need to interact.

In addition to reducing conflict between parents, research has demonstrated that it is necessary to improve communication between parents and children, and between parents. Children who have gone through a divorce often feel left out of the process. Often children find out about their parents’ divorce very suddenly, which may leave them unprepared to deal with the upheaval in their lives. In fact, Schlesinger (1982) found that 55 percent of the children interviewed stated that their parents had not talked to them about the separation before it occurred. Furthermore, Mitchell (1988) determined that one-third of the children were not given a reason as to why their parents’ separated. It is important for parents to explain to children why the divorce is occurring.

It is also necessary to improve communication between the parents - this relates to the above discussion concerning conflict. It is necessary to be able to discuss the children’s behaviour and agree upon courses of action.

4.3 Support Groups/Therapeutic Programs

Once a divorce has occurred, children require support in order to minimise the negative effects they may experience. This can be informal support by family, peers or the educational system, or more formal therapeutic programs which are run by professional counsellors. In recent years, there has also been developments in Internet divorce counselling services on the World Wide Web.

Peers can play an important role in providing support, particularly those who have undergone similar experiences. Furthermore, intra-familial and extra-familial support networks can play an important role in reducing a child’s level of stress and assisting them in coping with the upheaval of marital disruption. Schreiber (1983) suggests that surroundings can be helpful in providing support. For example, it may help if the child can keep his/her own room, home, day care, school, and neighbours. In this way, some of the established support systems are in place during the divorce process.

The educational system can help mitigate the negative effects of divorce in a variety of ways, including the provision of direct and indirect services as well as preventative services to children. Direct service can be provided through individuals or by groups, using counsellors or group therapy (Parker, 1994). Indirect services can be offered by increasing the awareness of school personnel on how to identify and assist children from divorced families. Preventative service would provide children of divorce with curriculum changes and additional facilities to help them cope with divorce (Hutchisons, 1989).

Grych and Fincham (1992) conducted an extensive examination of various intervention programs, as well as a discussion of evaluations of these programs. According to this article, most child-focused interventions attempt to help children by alleviating the negative feelings, misconceptions and practical problems they commonly experience following a divorce. The programs generally use a time-limited, small-group format (4 to 10 children); tend to be based in schools; and, share similar goals and strategies. The groups are usually both educational and therapeutic in focus and have the following types of goals: to clarify confusing and upsetting divorce issues, to provide a supportive place for children to work through difficult issues, to develop skills for coping with upsetting feelings and difficult family situations, and to improve parent-child communication. Techniques employed often include role playing, use of audiovisual materials, storytelling, social problem-solving exercises, drawing, bibliotherapy, and the creation of a group newspaper or television show which focuses on divorce.

Although child-focused groups are quite widespread, there appear to have been few formal evaluations of the various programs. Of those evaluations that have been conducted, the results seem encouraging - the intervention programs appear to have some positive effects in areas such as self-esteem, depression, social skills, and some forms of behaviour. However, Grych and Fincham caution that much of the support for the programs has been impressionistic or limited because the evaluations contain serious methodological flaws. Furthermore, Grych and Fincham question the potential of short-term interventions that target only the child, rather than the entire family.

There are two types of family-focused interventions. The first has an educational focus on parenting and parent-child relationships, and attempts to help parents improve their child management skills and their understanding of children’s reactions to divorce. The second type of intervention program focuses on parents’ personal adjustment to the divorce, rather than solely on their role as parents. This type of program is based on the belief that, by enabling the adults to be more effective parents, they also promote children’s well-being. Both types of programs are delivered in a group format designed to help build effective coping skills and provide a supportive context, which may reduce the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by many divorced adults. Groups have been conducted in a variety of settings, including schools, community mental health centres, and churches.

According to Grych and Fincham, there is even less empirical data on the effectiveness of parent-focused groups than on child-focused groups. Of the three evaluations examined, the programs appeared to improve some problem areas, such as the custodial parents’ adjustment, mother-child relationship and discipline practices. And, although the programs attempted to improve parents’ discipline practices, fewer address the quality of parent-child relations or inter- parental conflict - two other mediators emphasised by basic research. Furthermore, it is imperative to intervene with both custodial and non-custodial parents. Since the effect on children is indirect with these programs and may take considerable time to occur, it may be useful to develop groups for parents and children that operate in parallel. According to Grych and Fincham, parent-focused groups hold considerable promise for improving the quality of children’s life after divorce, but information about the efficacy of parent-focused interventions is limited by three factors: research evaluating the effectiveness of this type of intervention has barely begun; there are many of the same methodological problems as for child-focused programs; and, as in the case of child groups, the short duration of the groups may limit their efficacy.

Although it has not yet been clearly established which types of programs are the most effective for diminishing the negative effects of divorce on children, it appears that interventions which provide support for parents, as well as parallel groups for children, hold the most promise.

However, it is important to include both custodial and non-custodial parents. In addition, it is important to integrate research results in developing appropriate programs. For instance, since research has shown that inter-parental conflict, discipline, and parent-child relations are important factors in children’s adjustment to divorce, programs for parents should attempt to incorporate these areas into the curriculum. Finally, more widespread and powerful effects may be obtained if programs target children as soon as possible after the decision to divorce is made.

4.4 Summary

Overall, the research is fairly consistent in suggesting that reducing conflict between the parents and increasing communication (between parents and with the children) may reduce the negative impacts that divorce has on children. In addition, increasing the self-sufficiency of custodial mothers may aid in making children’s homelife more stable. Research also indicates that access to both parents is important for the well-being of children, but depends on other factors (such as parental conflict). Furthermore, the issue of whether joint or sole custody is best for children has not been resolved, and most likely depends on a number of factors. Alternatives to litigation need to be more fully examined before any decision can be made on their usefulness in children’s adjustment to divorce. Finally, support groups and therapeutic programs appear to be a feasible way to reduce negative effects on children. However, more research is necessary in order to determine which programs are the most effective.

Amato (1993) provides an in-depth examination of five major perspectives that have been used to account for children’s adjustment to divorce. These include: absence of the noncustodial parent; adjustment of the custodial parent; inter-parental conflict; economic hardship; and, stressful life changes. Based on past research, Amato examines the amount of support the hypotheses for each of these perspectives receives. The results demonstrate that, although each model received some support, the most support was for the "inter-parental conflict model". Because no one model provided all of the answers, Amato proposes the development of a larger model which incorporates elements from all of these models - a "resources and stressors" model.

This model suggests that children’s development is facilitated by the possession of certain classes of resources (e.g., parental support, socio-economic resources). Also, marital dissolution can be problematic because it involves a number of stressors that challenge children’s development (e.g., inter-parental conflict, disruptive life changes) and because it can interfere with children’s ability to utilise parental resources (e.g., lose contact and access to income). Therefore, the total configuration of resources and stressors, rather than the presence or absence of a particular factor, needs to be considered.