Considerations for determining parenting arrangements: factors that influence outcomes

Section 1: The Effects of Divorce on Children from a Risk and Resiliency Perspective

At one time, it was thought that family breakdown led to problems with child adjustment. However, as social science research in the area developed, it became evident that rather than the divorce/separation itself leading to poor outcomes, it was more that the separation or divorce made it more likely that some children could experience child adjustment risk factors (i.e., lower income, parental conflict, losing contact with a parent, poor parenting behaviours).

Impact of Divorce

Divorce is one of many experiences that can cause stress for children. In general, researchers have shown that compared to children in intact families, children who experience the dissolution of their parents’ relationship may be more likely to experience some health/mental health problems, behavioural problems (internalizing and externalizing), difficulties in school (learning, behavioural difficulties and dropping out of school) and more difficulties with their social relationships (Amato, 2010; Ambert, 2009; D’Onofrio, 2011; Weaver & Schofield, 2015). Currently, the consensus is that risk factors associated with the transition and post-divorce experiences can negatively impact children. These risk factors can exist both pre- and post-divorce and are not unique to divorced/separated families (Amato, 2010; Ambert, 2009; D’Onofrio, 2011; Rappaport, 2013; Weaver & Schofield, 2015). When risk factors are controlled, on average children of divorce are indistinguishable from children from intact families after they have adjusted to the transition (Amato, 2004; Hetherington, Bridges & Insabella, 1998; Mackay, 2005; O’Conner, 2004).

The important point here is that the experiences of children can make them either more resilient and protect them from poor outcomes, or contribute to their risk of adjustment and behavioural problems. These factors are important to identify, assess and consider when determining how to reduce the impact of divorce on children, especially when making parenting arrangements.

Risk and Protective Factors

There is a large body of social science research on child outcomes. This research points to the risk and protective factors that function to make it more or less likely that children become well adjusted, socially competent teens, young adults and adults. Social competence is a complex concept that encompasses an individual’s ability to negotiate and navigate the social environment, to develop and maintain relationships, to manage interpersonal interactions, to adapt/adjust to changes, and to engage in problem-solving. It broadly includes social skills, social communication and interpersonal communication (e.g., Rose-Krasnor, 1997; Rubin & Rose-Krasnor, 1992; Semrud-Clikeman, 2007; Spitzberg, 2003). For children who are at risk for adjustment, behavioural problems include: internalizing (e.g., shyness and anxiety) and externalizing behaviours (e.g., aggression, acting out), poor academic functioning and dropping out of school, delinquency and later criminal behaviour, substance (ab)use, poor physical health and teenage pregnancy (e.g., Begle, Dumas & Hanson, 2010; Ben-Aryeh, Frones, Casas & Korbin, 2013; Durlak, 1998; Goldstein & Brooks, 2012; Hindley, Ramchandani & Jones, 2006; Iwaniec, Larkin & Higgins, 2006; Korbin & Krugman, 2014; Lansford, Dodge, Pettit, Bates, Crozier & Kaplow, 2002; Ronan, Canoy & Burke, 2009; Runyan, Wattam, Ikdea, Hassan & Ramiro, 2002; Sinno, Charafeddine, Makati & Holt, 2013).

This risk/resiliency lens highlights that children from all families (regardless whether they are from intact or divorced families) have varied life experiences. These experiences can be either beneficial or detrimental to outcomes and adjustment. It is clear that it is not just one factor that leads to positive or negative outcomes but rather there is an additive effect of these factors (e.g., Amato, 2005; Cognetti & Chmil, 2014; Rappaport, 2013). There are several common factors identified in child development research that can function to put children at risk or protect them from negative adjustment (e.g., Ben-Aryeh, et al., 2013; Boninio, Cattelino & Ciairano, 2005; Durlak, 1998; Kelly, 2012; Rappaport, 2013; Sinno, et al., 2013; Goldstein & Brooks, 2013; Weaver & Schofield, 2015). Protective factors include:

  1. At least one strong parent-child relationship characterized by positive emotional connections, adaptability and good communication
  2. Parenting that is sensitive and responsive to the children’s needs, and authoritative in nature (clear boundaries, consistent, but not rigid and punitive)
  3. Consistency and predictability in social interactions as well as in the environment
  4. Availability of social support and social networks including, family members, friends or other involved adults upon whom children can rely.

Risk factors include:

  1. Exposure to or involvement in pervasive interparental conflict and family violence
  2. Uninvolved parents both in terms of time and the parent-child relationship
  3. Parenting style that is intrusive or unsupportive
  4. Poverty or lack of resources and negative neighbourhood influence
  5. Individual parental factors, for example, mental health issues, substance use
  6. Individual child factors, for example, difficult temperament, mental and physical health, issues

These resiliency and risk factors are important predictors of outcomes and adjustment for all children in all families. This includes children who are experiencing or have experienced divorce/separation (Kelly, 2012; Rappaport, 2013).