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How Are The Children Of Divorce Doing?

A recent Time magazine article asked “Does Divorce Hurt Kids?” and presented the conclusions from the two longest term studies of children of divorce – One was the 25-year longitudinal research study conducted on about 60 children in Marin County, California, begun in the early 1970s by Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly (Wallerstein continued the research over the years and recently, in 2000, published the long-term findings in her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce; A 25 Year Landmark Study .) The other study was the research of E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, who for three decades followed about 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children, and her findings were published this year in her book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered .

These two authors came to very different conclusions about the long-term effect of divorce on children. Wallerstein’s research concluded that a significant minority of children has permanent scars that linger through adolescence and well into adulthood. Such scars are seen as depression, delinquency, poor grades, fear of failure, fear of commitment, and fear of following their parents’ path. These young adults recall their parents’ divorce as a major trauma in their lives, from which they feel gypped out of a healthy childhood and destined to repeat the pattern, should they marry and have children.

Hetherington’s research reached very different conclusions. While she did find that 25% of children from divorce do have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems (in contrast to only 10% of children from intact families), the great majority (75% to 80%) of children of divorce shows very little long-term damage and, as adults, is functioning well. Specifically, she found that within two years of their parents’ divorce the vast majority of children is doing reasonably well again, and that 70% of divorced parents are living happier lives than they did before divorce. She notes that some women and girls developed competence and strength as a result of the divorce.

Which of these authors has an accurate handle on the effects of divorce on children? Is divorce a formula for children’s doom (as suggested by Wallerstein), or is divorce just one of many traumas that children go through in childhood, with most recovering just fine (as suggested by Hetherington). To answer this question, we need to look at several issues. For one, these two studies had very different methodologies; Wallerstein’s subjective study used a small sample of children who were individually interviewed, intensively and extensively, for thousands of hours over several decades. In contrast, Hetherington studied the objective records of several thousand children over three decades and based her conclusions on statistically analyzed group, rather than individual data. These two respective methods (subjective and objective) yield very different kinds of data, and, in the case of divorce, very different kinds of conclusions. In effect, each study looks at the same elephant, but through different windows. Neither view may be truer than the other, but rather they are different, and perhaps complementary.

However, there is more to the story than their methodologies. It turns out that the question of whether divorce is very bad, or not so bad for children is far too simplistic. Researchers have found that there is a wide range of individual differences as to how children deal with divorce, so that it is not really possible to say how all children will respond to divorce, but only how a particular child will respond to a particular divorce. Moreover, there is a host of external factors that predict the effects of divorce on a given child. These factors include the following:

A) the child’s age at the time of separation (much evidence suggests that younger children are more negatively affected by divorce);

B) the child’s gender (boys have a harder time than girls with social adjustment following divorce);

C) the pre-divorce adjustment of the child (divorce can magnify a child’s poor pre-divorce adjustment, and a child with problems before the divorce can exacerbate the difficulty of the divorce);

D) the custodial parent’s psychological adjustment (maternal depression and anxiety at the beginning of the divorce process predicts later negative emotional and social adjustment in the children);

E) the access and frequency of contact with the non-custodial parent (loss of significant contact with a parent with whom the child had a positive pre-divorce relationship is detrimental to the child);

F) the degree of conflict between the parents (in general, the higher the level of conflict, the worse the outcome for the children; this is a fairly robust finding);

G) the degree of “goodness of fit” between a child’s temperament characteristics and each parent’s tolerance of these characteristics (the better the “fit,” the better the adjustment of the child).

In addition to these, there are many other variables that have been found to influence child adjustment following divorce.

So, in order to properly answer the question “How are children of divorce doing?” we really need to ask of a particular child within a particular divorce, something like: “Which child, of what age, of which divorcing family, with what kind of marital history, with what specific kinds and degrees of pre- and post-separation disputes, with what degree of custodial parent adjustment, with what coping styles, temperament styles, and qualities of parent-child relationships, presented at which times in the divorcing process, within what kinds of time-sharing schedules, etc.?” Only when this series of complex questions is answered can we even begin to predict how a particular child of divorce will turn out.

If we took even the lowest statistic of detriment to children, that of 25% who have significant problems following divorce, this still represents a large number of children, given that half the population of first marriages end in divorce. Because of the importance to the children of keeping the level of inter-parental conflict low and the level of mutual support high, mediation needs to be a first method attempted for resolving differences in divorce. As a society, we need to help divorcing families develop the emotional and financial support systems for maintaining a high quality of continued co-parenting through the divorce process and for the years after. While it can be confusing, the research does guide us to the factors that do make a difference in the adjustment of children. We must take advantage of these findings and proceed to do what we can to optimize the adjustment of our children of divorce.


Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody and family mediator and a national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of the classic text, Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How… MORE >

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