Researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems following divorce or as adults, according to Hal Arkowitz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, and Scott O. Lilienfeld is a psychology professor at Emory University. Both serve on the board of advisers for Scientific American.
A marital failure is painful, but most youngsters adjust well over time, and there are ways parents can insulate children from the harmful effects of a marital failure.
Divorcing parents are usually very protective of their children during the breakup. Some parents remain in unhappy marriages because they hope to shield their offspring from the pain of divorce.
Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly. In a 2002 study psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects such as anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear within two years. Only a minority of children suffers longer, but most children do well in the longer term.
In a quantitative review of the literature in 2001, sociologist Paul R. Amato, then at Pennsylvania State University, examined studies that compared children of married parents with those who experienced divorce at different ages. The investigators followed these children into later childhood and adolescence, assessing their academic achievement, emotional and behavior problems, delinquency, self-concept and social relationships. On average, the studies found only very small differences on all these measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families. This suggests that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.
A high level of parental conflict during and after a divorce (the so-called “high conflict” divorce) is associated with poorer adjustment in children. Some children who are exposed to fighting and arguing prior to divorce adjust better than children whose parents do not battle, according to Hetherington and her associates. Apparently, when marital conflict is muted, children are often unprepared when told about the upcoming divorce; news of the breakup surprises and scares them. Children from high-discord families may experience the divorce as a welcome relief from their parents’ ongoing fighting.
Taken together, the findings suggest that only a small percentage of young people experience divorce-related problems, and the causes of these lingering difficulties remain uncertain. Some troubles may arise from conflict associated with the divorce because the stress can also cause the quality of parenting to decline. Divorce frequently contributes to depression, anxiety or substance abuse in one or both parents; it may bring about difficulties in balancing work and child rearing, which can impair a parent’s ability to offer children stability and love when they are most in need.
Divorce can also create problems that do not appear until the late teenage years or adulthood, according to Judith Wallerstein, whose book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, suggests that most adults who were children of divorce experience serious problems such as depression and relationship issues.
Yet scientific research does not support the view that problems in adulthood are prevalent; it instead demonstrates that most children of divorce become well-adjusted adults. For example, in a 2002 book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, Hetherington and her co-author, journalist John Kelly, describe a 25-year study in which she followed children of divorce and children of intact families. Hetherington found that 25 percent of the adults whose parents divorced experienced serious social, emotional or psychological troubles compared with 10 percent of those still-married parents. These findings suggest that only 15 percent of adult children of divorce experience problems over and above those from stable families. No one knows whether this difference is caused by the divorce itself or by variables, such as poorer parenting, that often accompany a marriage’s dissolution.
In a review article in 2003, psychologists Joan B. Kelly of Corte Madera, California, and Robert E. Emery of the University of Virginia concluded that the relationships of adults whose parents’ marriages failed do tend to be somewhat more problematic than those of children from stable homes. For instance, people whose parents split when they were young experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages. On all other measures, differences between the two groups were small.
Even though children of divorce generally do well, a number of factors can reduce the problems they might experience. Children fare better if parents can limit conflict or minimize the child’s exposure to it. Further, children who in the custody of a well-functioning parent do better than those whose custodial parent does poorly. In the latter situation, the maladjusted parent may need professional help or consider limiting his or her time with the child. Parents can also support their children by talking to them clearly about the divorce and answering questions fully.
Good parenting buffers against divorce-related difficulties in children. Parents should provide warmth and emotional support, and they should closely watch their children’s activities. They should be neither overly permissive nor overly strict. Economic stability after the divorce and social support from peers and other adults, such as teachers, also contributes to a child’s adjustment.
In addition, certain characteristics of the child can influence his or her resilience. Children with an easygoing temperament tend to fare better. Coping styles also make a difference. For example, children who are good problem solvers and who seek social support are more resilient than those who rely on distraction and avoidance.
Divorce is hard and often extremely painful for children, but long-term harm is not inevitable, and children rebound with few if any battle scars.