Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Is Divorce Hard On Children?

July 6, 1998

Should parents stay together in an unhappy, conflict-ridden marriage for the sake of the children? Conflict is the issue - not divorce - whether it is in intact families or following divorce. Children from high conflict families have more adjustment problems than children from divorced families or low conflict, non-divorced families.

Divorce improves the adjustment of children removed from contentious marriages. In unhappy marriages if conflict is not obvious to the children, then divorce affects children's adjustment.

One-in-four to one-out-of-three teenagers in divorced and remarried families become disengaged from their families while only one-out-of 10 teens from non-divorced families do. They spend as little time as possible at home and avoid activities and communication with family members. This is greater for boys in divorced families and girls in step families.

What is the likelihood of effective coparenting after divorce? One-fourth of the divorcing couples are able to be cooperative, mutually supportive and don't fight or argue. Children adjust well when the family is small and there is little conflict at the time of divorce. Unfortunately, one-fourth of divorcing couples maintain high levels of conflict after their divorce.

It is the type of conflict, not frequency, that is the problem. Children suffer when parents tear each other down, compete for loyalty, communicate through the children or fight about the children. In high conflict divorces, children may learn to mislead or exploit parents and to escape monitoring of their activities when they get older.

How does divorce affect custodial mothers and their children? When mothers are warm, supportive and close while exerting firm, consistent control and supervision, children have a better adjustment to divorce. However, in the immediate aftermath of divorce, custodial mothers are more irritable, less affectionate, are more pushy and have poorer communication with their children. Because of their own turmoil, they have less control, are more inconsistent and don't do as well at monitoring behavior.

Even though parenting improves steadily during the first two years after divorce, it is still less authoritative than non-divorced mothers. Custodial mothers have more problems with control and aren�t as close to their sons. With daughters, they continue to have close, more companion-like relationships except for a predictable rise in conflict during adolescence.

Adolescent sons adjust better to divorce with custodial fathers while teen-age daughters adjust better with custodial mothers. However, children feel closer to the custodial parent, regardless of whether the custodial parent is a mother or father.

How do custodial fathers relate to their children? Fathers who seek and are awarded custody are a select, capable group of fathers. They are more child oriented and involved than most fathers. They do best with boys and older children. They have more control and assign tasks with greater ease than do custodial mothers.

Once the family has become stabilized, children from father custody families have fewer behavioral problems, less stress, and better parent-child relationships than children in mother-custody families. However, custodial fathers have more problems in communication and sharing personal feelings than do custodial mothers. They monitor less well than custodial mothers, especially with teenage daughters.

When the custodial father remarries, this is harder on father/daughter relationships. The stepmother's presence alters the daughter's role and the father lowers his involvement in parenting. If a custodial mother remarries, boys, in particular, adapt to both the father and stepfather's roles in their lives.

What about mothers who don�t have custody of their children? They maintain more contact than non-custodial fathers. They are less adept at controlling and monitoring behavior than custodial mothers. However, when compared with non-custodial fathers, they are more interested, informed, supportive, sensitive, responsive and communicative. They continue to exert influence on their daughters through their closeness, warmth and monitoring.

Much of the success enjoyed by custodial fathers can also be attributed to the involvement of non-custodial mothers.

What about fathers who don�t have custody of their children? Their parenting is much less predictable. Some highly committed, attached fathers drift away. Their loss of role and contact are too painful. Others drift away because the involvement wasn�t strong in the first place.

Non-custodial fathers assume a friendly, companion oriented relationship. They are hesitant to take a traditional role of disciplinarian or teacher. They are less likely to criticize, control, monitor behavior or help out with tasks such as homework.

It is not the frequency but the quality and circumstances of contact that determine whether the interactions are positive. When non-custodial fathers stay in the parental role, engage in joint activities and share holidays, children do better. Low conflict with the custodial mother helps. Boys benefit from their contact with non-custodial fathers except when it occurs when parents are in a high post-divorce conflict. Then contact makes things worse.

This column was based on a review article on children's adjustment to divorce by psychologists Mavis Hetherington, Margaret Bridges and Glendessa Insabella of the University of Virginia.