Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Five Reasons Why Divorce Disrupts Children's Lives

June 29, 1998

- In the United States, the number of divorces each year is almost half the number of new marriages and one million children experience their parents' divorce. It is projected that between 50 percent and 60 percent of children born in the 1990s will live, at some point, in single parent families.

- Seventy-five percent of men and 66 percent of women eventually remarry. Step families make up approximately 17 percent of all two-parent families with children less than 18 years of age. Divorces among remarried couples occur at a rate 10 percent higher than that in first marriages.

- About half the children of divorce will have a stepfather within four years of parental separation. One in 10 children will experience at least two divorces in their parental household before turning age 16. These figures do not take into account cohabitating family arrangements.

Do these facts bother you? They should when you consider the emotional and behavioral problems of children associated with their exposure to divorce and remarriage.

What is it about divorce and remarriage that results in a child having a greater risk for significant problems. The answers are complex and interrelated. Psychologist Mavis Hetherington and her associates at the University of Virginia outline five factors that affect a child's poorer coping.

1. Personal problems of the parents. Some parents possess qualities that make them more likely to have poor coping and interpersonal skills. They are more likely to have marital discord and go through divorce. Individuals with personal problems are more likely to select partners who also have their share of psychological problems.

These problems might include temper, chronic insecurity, depression, dishonesty, rigidity, laziness, selfishness, alcoholism, antisocial behavior or other forms of emotional difficulty. Parents with these kinds of problems usually are poor at problem-solving and resolving conflict. They react with anger, blame, contempt, denial and withdrawal.

As you can imagine, these overlying problems result in misguided beliefs about relationships. Divorce is more likely. They make poorer parents, experience more money and job problems and don't handle stress well.

Over time, these negative qualities have an impact on family life and the well-being of their partner and their children. In fact, researchers have found the qualities of being irritable, erratic and having poor parenting practices were present as early as 8 to 12 years prior to divorce. Poor coping of children after divorce is a result of poorer coping generally because of ongoing parental dysfunction.

2. Family composition. Researchers have found the best family situation for parenting is the presence of two biological parents. Two parents provide mutual support, form a parenting team and serve as role models. They provide more resources, more supervision, and more involvement with their children.

The negative impact of an absent parent is a factor in divorce but not death. With the death of a parent, the extended family is more involved. Also, children from divorced families may have been exposed to greater conflict.

After divorce, children have less contact with the parent who moves out. However, when the parents have a history of open conflict, the loss of contact is offset by reduction of emotional turmoil in the home. Also it is the quality of contact, rather than the frequency, that is important - especially for the relationship between the parent that�s moved out and the child of the same sex.

Stepparents can compensate for the absence of a parent but this involves a lengthy adjustment period that may take several years.

3. Stress due to stress and financial problems. Divorce triggers a series of economic and social changes that can interfere with how parents and children cope. Both custodial mothers and fathers complain of task overload and social isolation as they juggle household, childcare and financial responsibility.

Noncustodial parents complain about the loss of children, problems in visitations, and difficult relations with their ex-spouse. They have to start over in a new home and try to rebuild their relationships.

A remarriage may solve some income problems created by the divorce but adds its own set of unique stressors.

4. Parental distress. Going through a divorce and dealing with the complications of a remarriage can result in psychological problems such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, impulsiveness, irritability and antisocial actions. The stress of a divorce also adds to health problems.

It is the parents' response to stress, rather than the stress itself, that affects children the most. One effect of parental turmoil and distress is less effective parenting. A child who is confused, angry and apprehensive about the divorce offers a challenge to parents at a time when parents are caught up in their own difficulties.

5. Disruption of family functioning. The previous four factors play a role in disrupting family functions and interactions, especially in parenting and child rearing practices. Relationships change. There are differences in the conflict, control, expression of positive and negative feelings and discipline.

In a follow-up column, I will examine how divorce and remarriage affects relationships between divorced couples, custodial parents and their children, noncustodial parents and their children and between stepparents and stepchildren.