Children's Adjustment to Divorce in Hands of Parents
Wed Feb 2 13:54:09 EST 2000
from: Smart Marriages
Children's Adjustment to Divorce Largely in Hands of Parents,
with One Exception: Dad's Departure Depresses Boys
Divorce is a distressing experience, both for the couple in conflict
and the children caught in the middle. But comprehensive, new research
from Iowa State University presents strong evidence that parents, even
those no longer living in the home, have a great deal of control over
children's adjustment to the break-up of the family.
The research, reported in the November edition of the Journal of
Marriage and the Family, is the first to examine all the major factors
commonly associated with divorce and child development problem. While
the findings provide encouraging information, they also reveal some
critical gender differences in the ways divorce and parental reaction
can affect adolescents. Divorced parents can substantially reduce the
probability that their children will experience developmental
difficulty by continuing effective parenting and avoiding hostile
exchanges. However, boys remain at risk for depression even under the
most optimal post-divorce conditions.
Even though divorce more than doubles the risk for emotional and
behavioral problems in both boys and girls, the good news is that the
vast majority of children from divorced families do just fine, says
lead author Ronald L. Simons, who conducted the research with
colleagues at Iowa States Department of Sociology and Institute for
Social and Behavioral Research.
"What is essential for kids is that they be parented well," says
Simons. "If mom and dad continue to persevere in their parenting, are
warm and supportive, monitor the kids and are consistent in discipline,
the risk for conduct problems is no greater than in two-parent
families. This is a more optimistic scenario than is often asserted."
The latest findings are part of Iowa State's Transitions Project, a
longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
For the past decade, this study has followed approximately 600
families, both married and divorced. This on-going study has produce a
flow of data, generating greater understanding and raising new
questions about how changes in family structure and processes impact
the family unit and its various members.
Regardless of family structure, girls are more likely to experience
depression and boys to show conduct problems, according to Simons.
However, the new research reveals a significant exception -- divorce
increases a boy's chances of becoming depressed, regardless of other
mediating conditions. "Even when those parents remain involved and
supportive, boys often become depressed due to the departure of their
father from the home," he says.
The research examined all the major explanations for the association
between divorce and child developmental problems: loss of family
income, parental conflict, psychological adjustment and parenting
practices of the custodial parent (most typically the mother), and
involvement of the non-custodial father. Previous studies have
considered only one of two of these more popular theories.
Targeting adolescents with an average age of 14, the Iowa-based study
involved 534 families -- 328 two-parent and 206 divorced mother-headed
households. Researchers focused on two dimensions of child adjustment:
whether they externalized problems, manifested by aggressive or
delinquent behavior, or internalized their concerns, resulting in
emotional distress and depression.
Findings largely support the argument that family structure influence
child development through its impact on family processes. In other
words, children of divorce are at risk for adjustment problems because
their parents are less likely to engage in competent, consistent
parenting and are more likely to engage in conflict exchanges than
parents who are married to each other. Divorce, with its emotional
turmoil, time demands and often financial stress increases the
custodial mother's own chances of becoming depressed, which in turn
tends to disrupt the quality of her parenting, Simons explains. This,
in turn, increases the child's risk for adjustment problems.
Data also show that being a non-residential parent is often a
confusing role for fathers, who too often relinquish their parenting
role and form a more buddy-type relationship with the children.
Compared to fathers in intact families, the divorced, non-residential
dads were less likely to help their children solve problems, discuss
standards of conduct or enforce discipline, increasing the probability
that boys would display conduct problems.
"It is essential, especially for sons, that fathers continue to
function as a parent," Simons emphasizes. "Simply showing the kids a
good time and being a pal doesn't make any difference in terms of
developmental outcomes for kids."
Quality of the custodial mother's parenting was the only factor that
was related to both internalizing and externalizing problems of
children. Findings indicate that quality of mother's parenting reduces
much of the association between divorce and adjustment for both boys
and girls. However, effects of the other factors differ by type of
adjustment problem and gender of the child. For example:
o The quality of the custodial mother's parenting and the father's
involvement in parenting are key indicators in boys_ externalizing
problems, while mother's parenting and post-divorce conflict increase
girls_ risk of adverse behavior.
o Pre-divorce conflict increases the chances of depression in boys
while post-divorce conflict elevates a girl's risk for conduct
problems. It may be that the threat of parental loss, rather than
parental conflict per se is disturbing to boys and that deviant
behavior is a way for a girl to express emotional anxiety produced by
her parents_ fighting. Or parental conflict could serve to model and
legitimate a daughter's antisocial behavior.
o The quality of father's parenting has little effect on the
association between divorce and girls_ antisocial behavior. Mom's
parenting is the most consequential factor.
o Conflict isn't as destructive for kids in two-parent families as long
as it doesn't spill over into the quality of parenting. Except for
girls in divorced families, conflict doesn't have much impact. Simons
says researchers were surprised that parental conflict did not have
more of an effect.
o Active engagement in the role of parent, not simply contact, by the
non-custodial father substantially reduces the probability that boys
will display conduct problems.
o Parental divorce is more emotionally disturbing to boys than too
girls. Boys in divorced families experience higher rates of depression
than those in intact families, even when their mothers show positive
psychological adjustment and practice competent parenting.
Past research has shown that divorce can contribute to adverse
behavior such as lower achievement in school, early entry into sexual
activity, delinquency and substance abuse, by both boys and girls. But
the effects of divorce on children are widely stereotyped and not
nearly as uniform as people generally believe, according to Robert
Milardo, editor of the Journal of Marriage and the Family and professor
of human development at the University of Maine. "Longitudinal studies
of family relationships and dynamics, such as the work at Iowa State,
are providing important new knowledge about how parents might ease the
impact of a drastic change, such as divorce, on their children," he
Simons_ Iowa State colleagues in the study, "Explaining the Higher
Incidence of Adjustment Problems of Children of Divorce," and on-going
research are: Rand D. Conger and Frederich O. Lorenz, professors of
sociology; Leslie C. Gordon, post-doctorate fellow; and Kuei-Hsui Lin,
graduate student in sociology.
The Journal of Marriage and the Family is the quarterly publication of
the National Council on Family Relations, 3989 Central Ave. NE, Suite
550, Minneapolis, MN 55421. Telephone: (612) 781-9331. Editorial
offices are located at 30 Merrill Hall, University of Maine, Orono, ME
04469-5749. Telephone (207) 581-3103. Web site: www.ume.maine.edu/~JMF
Ronald L Simons: (515) 294-9894; rsimons at iastate.edu
Robert M. Milardo (207) 581-3128; rhd360 at maine.edu
Electronic versions of this news release by contacting Kay Hyatt: (207)
581-2761; kay.hyatt at umit.maine.edu.
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