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					                                    Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 1




Running Head: Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions




                   Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions

                                  Mary E. Bowman

                                University of Georgia
                                        Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 2


                     Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions

    In 1956, seven year-old Steve Farrar was in second grade. He asked his neighbor,

Craig, where his dad was, since he never saw him around. Craig answered that his parents

were divorced. Steve asked him, "What's that?" No one in his family and none of his

friends at church had been divorced; and out of 20 kids in his class at school, Craig was

the only one from a divorced home.

        Today, just 48 years later, divorce is a common occurrence. In 1969, California

introduced the first "no-fault" divorce law. Forty-five other states joined in over the next

five years. By 1985, all 50 states had established no-fault divorce. In 1996, nearly 23

million children didn't live with their biological fathers. Now almost every second grader

in America is familiar with the word divorce. In fact, if a child is still living with his

original parents, he's in the minority. (Farrar, Steve, 1998, Anchor Man, Nelson.)

        In 2003, there were 2,187,000 marriages and approximately 1 million divorces.

That is a rate of 7.5 marriages per 1,000 total population. The divorce rate was 3.8 per

1,000 total population. (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/faststats/divorce.htm). So, the divorce

rate is approximately 50% of the new marriage rate.

    Unfortunately, we may no longer have adequate statistics about marriage and divorce.

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in 1996, stopped collecting detailed,

yearly, state-by-state statistics on marriage and divorce. In 2000, the U.S. Census short-

form no longer asked about marital status. Only 16 million Americans received the long

form, which is too few to determine adequate marriage statistics (USA Today, 1999).

    We often hear from the media that 50 per cent of all marriages end in divorce. This

myth started about 20-30 years ago when someone looked at marriage and divorce
                                       Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 3


numbers reported by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), according to Jim

Killam. The number of divorces in one year was precisely half the number of marriages.

Their conclusion was that half of all marriages end in divorce. Not true. The divorce

statisticians forgot to figure in the marriages already in existence, of which there are tens

of millions. For example, (1 million divorces this year / 2 million new marriage this year

= 50% new divorce rate) and (1 million divorces this year / 10 million current marriages

= 10% actual divorce rate.) The 50% divorce rate is a dangerous and misleading statistic

because many people in our culture now believe that divorce is inevitable. So, it is

possible that this falsely reported statistic may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

George Barna's research may be closer to finding the true divorce rate in America. His

group surveyed 3,142 randomly selected adults. 24 percent of adults who have been

married also have been divorced. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 1 to 2

percent. Note the important wording: "adults who have been married." The annual ratio

of divorces-to-new-marriages has been about one in two (50%) since no-fault divorce

began in 1969-70, and most divorces occur before the participants are age 45. So this

suggested 24% divorce rate will rise as older, more stable marriages die off. But, the

statistic that indicates for now that 75% of marriages won't end in divorce offers hope.

(http://www.christianitytoday.com/mp/7m2/7m2046.html)

       Traditionally, the presence of children in the family was an impediment to

divorce. According to well-established popular belief, dependent children had a stake in

their parents' marriage and experienced hardship as a result of the breakup of the

marriage. Because children were vulnerable and dependent, parents were morally

obligated to place their children's interests in the marriage above their own individual
                                       Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 4


interests. As divorce rates grew in the 1960s and 70s, more people believed that divorce

was no longer a social ill but rather a personal good. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

explains in The Divorce Culture, "divorce now became the psychologically healthy

response to marital dissatisfaction." Child-welfare professionals and others claimed that

the happiness of the individual parents, rather than an intact marriage, was the key to

children's family well-being. If divorce could make one or both parents happier, then it

was likely that it could improve the well-being of children as well.

       We now have substantial empirical evidence that this confidence in the

therapeutic benefits of divorce was misplaced. Research on the impact of parental divorce

on children’s adjustment suggests that divorce is a stressful process for children,

associated with a variety of negative psychological consequences (Emery, 1988).

Effects of Divorce

       Children of Divorce (COD) go through a classic mourning process after divorce,

much like after a death in the family. They experience disbelief, then anxiety, anger,

sadness, and depression (Bienenfeld, 1987).

       A variety of studies suggest that parental divorce increases the chances that a

child will have difficulty with school, engage in early sex, suffer depression, commit

delinquent acts, and use illicit substances. Children and adolescents in single-parent

families exhibit higher rates of behavioral problems, including Attention-Deficit

Disorder, aggression, and delinquent behavior. COD experience more emotional

problems, such as depression and anxiety, and increased substance use. COD experience

lower levels of self-esteem, poor social skills, and poor academic achievement compared
                                       Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 5


with individuals in never-divorced, two-parent families (see Amato & Keith, 1991b;

Simons et al., 1996).

       Fagan and Rector (2000) acknowledged the effects of divorce are enormous.

Their research showed COD “demonstrated an earlier loss of virginity, more

cohabitation, higher expectations of divorce, higher divorce rates later in life, and less

desire to have children.”

       Further, research indicates that the effects of parental divorce continue to be

evident in adulthood. Several studies have reported that adults who experienced parental

divorce as children have lower psychological well-being, more behavioral problems, less

education, lower job status, a lower standard of living, lower marital satisfaction, a

heightened risk of divorce, a heightened risk of being a single parent, and poorer physical

health" than adults reared in a nuclear family (Amato 1994). Wallerstein, Lewis, and

Blakeslee (2000) conducted a new study which showed that, as adults, many COD were

still dealing with inner conflict. Wallerstein and colleagues noted, “Divorce is a life-

transforming experience…Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory

of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.” When the parents

separated, children were frightened, angry, and terrified of being abandoned by their

parents. After the divorce, children were faced with loneliness caused by the loss of an

intact family. During adolescence, the COD were more likely to experiment with sex and

drugs. Upon reaching adulthood, they were faced with the decision of how to make a life-

long commitment to another adult. As adults, they were afraid of repeating the same

mistakes as their parents and many avoided commitment altogether, or rushed too quickly

into relationships. Wallerstein explains, "… the most powerful impact from divorce
                                        Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 6


occurs in the early 20s, when man and woman relationships come center stage. That's

when all the ghosts of their parents' divorce become very powerful and exercise a major

influence on the young; it is here that the effects of divorce crescendo." Adult COD live

between hope and fear. They are very pro-marriage. They hope deeply for what they

missed in their childhood. For them, successful marriage is like a mystery: they've heard

about it, but have never experienced it. They know they could find happiness in marriage,

but they also fear they could find great pain if history inevitably repeats itself.

       Children respond differently at different ages. Wallerstein and Kelly (1976), for

example, reported that children ages 7 to 8 showed sadness and grieving, whereas

children ages 9 to 10 showed anger, embarrassment, and loneliness. Age-related divorce

concerns may be linked to children’s levels of cognitive and emotional development.

Preschoolers are more likely to focus on maintaining emotional security and relationships

with both parents and to need routines in their school and home environments

(Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). In middle childhood, issues that originated during the

preschool years can be compounded by children's assuming guilt, blame, or responsibility

for their parents’ divorce or by holding unrealistic expectations about their ability to

influence parental behavior, such as bringing their parents back together. High school

students are more likely to deal with divorce-related concerns cognitively and to express

these concerns in terms of their own identity, capacity for relationships, and life-choice

issues (Kurdek, 1988).

       A 10-year study conducted by Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) cited a number of

symptoms that might be observed in the elementary school classroom in COD:

       1. anxiety
       2. depression
                                      Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 7


        3. regression
        4. asthma
        5. allergies
        6. tantrums
        7. daydreaming
        8. overaggressive behavior
        9. withdrawal from relationships
        10. poor school performance
        11. frequent crying or absence of emotion, and
        12. difficulty in communicating feelings.

        The following themes appear to be common to most COD, regardless of their age

(Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980):

        1. Fear. Divorce can be a frightening experience. The child’s main concern is one

of abandonment. Children may be concerned about who will care for them and provide

necessities. A sense of the unknown compounds the child’s fear. When the child was

told about the divorce there was usually no information about the meaning of divorce.

Children were concerned about not being allowed to ask questions about the divorce, and

in most situations the children were not encouraged to express their feelings.

        2. A sense of sadness or loss. Many children were openly tearful and moody.

Frequently, the children developed depressive symptoms such as sleep disturbances and

difficulty in sustaining attention.

        3. COD began feeling responsible for the well being of one or both parents.

Divorcing parents are in emotional distress and they focus on their own problems.

Therefore, they may be inconsistent and less affectionate toward their children. In

addition, some parents treat adolescent-aged children, as confidants. The child may try to

become the caretaker of the parents, offer support and sometimes attempt to bring about

reconciliation.
                                         Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 8


       4. The loneliness COD often experience. Divorced parents may be preoccupied

and inattentive to the emotional needs of their children. One parent usually leaves the

home, and the custodial parent begins working outside the home or begins working

longer hours. Children are often left alone or with care providers.

       5. Feeling rejected. The departure of the non-custodial parent and the child's

perception of withdrawal from the custodial parent both contributed to feeling rejected.

The child may question his or her own lovability and self-worth. Boys between 6 to 12

years old were most likely to express feeling rejected by the departing father.

       6. Conflicting loyalties. Most children want to keep a relationship with both

parents. Many parents begin to compete for the child’s support and affection after a

divorce. This puts the child in the middle and may make the child feel like a traitor to one

or both of the parents.

       7. Anger. Almost all children are at risk for experiencing anger. The younger

children in this study were more likely to express the anger in such acting-out behaviors

as hitting or having temper tantrums. The older children were more likely to express the

anger directly through verbal attacks.

       Parental divorce is often accompanied with losses for the family such as the loss

of a parent from the home, adjusted family relationships, and change in routines and

traditions. (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Some children experience feelings of anger,

guilt, sadness, fear, and adjustment problems.

       Kalter (1977) found that 50% to 70% of all school-age psychiatric clinic referrals

are COD. COD had more serious adjustment problems, were more isolated, less well-
                                         Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 9


liked by peers, and lower in self-esteem than children from intact families. (Guidubaldi

et al, 1983).

        Wallerstein and Kelly’s longitudinal studies showed that feelings of sadness,

anger, and anxiety about the divorce lasted for many years after the breakup. 25 per cent

of these children were adjusting well five years after the divorce, 50 per cent were

adjusting marginally, and 25 per cent had serious adjustment problems. Ten years after

the divorce, many children still felt distressed (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

        The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, published in 2000 by Wallerstein, Lewis, and

Blakeslee, found that COD are twice as likely to drop out of school and three times as

likely to conceive a child while still a teenager. By every measure, they are considerably

worse off than their peers from intact families.

        A central finding in Wallerstein's research is that "children identify not only with

their mother and father as separate individuals, but with the relationship between them,"

as an indistinguishable unit.

Some Children Show Little to No Effects from Divorce

        Children do not react in uniform fashion to parental divorce. The child’s

characteristics, their life situations, the quality of family life, the parent-child

relationships, and the support available to the child can affect post-divorce adjustment

(Felner et al., 1980; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

        The negative effects of divorce on children depend on many things, including the

age and sex of the child at the time of the divorce, the amount of conflict within the

family unit, and the degree of cooperation between the parents. Children who thrive well
                                     Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 10


in the midst of divorce are more likely to report living in homes which have family

support and parental control (Dacey & Travers, 2002) as noted in (Dykeman, 2003).

       It is important to note that the majority of children whose parents divorce show no

lasting negative effects, even though the evidence indicates that parental divorce is

associated with a two- to threefold increase in risk for adjustment problems (Emery,

1988; Simons et al., 1996).

Divorce May Not Be All Bad

       Amato and Booth (1997) found divorce per se is sometimes better than the child

living in a home with marital conflict, and 25 per cent to 33 per cent of parental divorces

today end up being better for the child than if the parents had stayed together. They also

reported that the worst outcome for children was to be in a continuously intact family

where the parents did not get along well and had a high level of conflict. Hetherington

and Kelly found that divorce has rescued many adults and children from the horror of

domestic abuse, and have seen divorce provide many women and girls with a remarkable

opportunity for life-transforming personal growth.

Other Explanations

       Simons and his colleagues (1999) examined how loss of family income, parental

conflict, the psychological adjustment and parenting practices of the custodial parent, and

the level of involvement of the non-custodial parent might explain the differences in

adolescent adjustment problems between divorced and intact families. Their findings

largely support the hypothesis that family structure influences child development through

its impact on family processes (Simons et al., 1996). Results suggest that COD are at risk

for adjustment problems because their parents are less likely to use competent parenting
                                       Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 11


skills and are more likely to experience parental conflict than parents who remain

married. This is good news because it indicates that parents who divorce can substantially

reduce the probability that their children will experience developmental difficulties by

engaging in effective parenting practices as well as avoiding hostile conflict in the

presence of the children. The one exception found, however, is that parental divorce

increased a boy's chances of becoming depressed regardless of quality of parenting or

level of parental conflict.

Children’s Literature and Children’s Feelings About Divorce

        Divorce books for children became very popular in the 1970s. Barbara Whitehead

found that children’s literature provides an account of children's experience of loss

associated with divorce. Adult literature on divorce, however, often focuses on liberation.

        "My parents are devvorst," one child writes to Beverly Cleary, an author of many

popular children's books. "My dad is the kind of person who never wants to be around

kids." Another girl confides: "I wish I could sue my parents for malpractice but I know I

can't so I just try to forget what they do."

        Author Richard Peck wrote his 1991 novel Unfinished Portrait of Jessica after

reading a young girl’s account of her parents' breakup. She writes about her father's

departure and his eventual remarriage:

        [The day he left, I had been listening to them argue. I guess my dad was stressed

out and my mom was just a bitch. … I was crying and screaming, "Daddy, please don't

go," when he walked out the door. I followed him out and clung to his leg until he got to

the car. This was when he pried me off his leg, jumped in the car and sped off. He

wouldn't even look me in the eye, and he didn't say goodbye. At nine is when I moved in
                                       Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 12


with my dad. Everything was perfect until my dad met my stepmother. … She was the

type of stepmother to be in Cinderella. She still is. … She's a psychologist, and therefore

she feels like she can solve all the problems of the world. She and my father have a

booklet on how to parent and everything. … Well, now they've more or less run me out

of the house with their rules and booklets and insincerity. I'm not living with them now…

I've left my dad, just like he left me, but at least I said goodbye.]

        Most often, the pain comes from the loss of the child’s father, a theme reflected in

many of the titles: Where Is Daddy?; At Daddy's on Saturday; Daddy's New Baby; Who

Will Lead Kiddush?; Will Dad Ever Move Back Home?

        In earlier children's books, children stand at a distance from the experience of loss

and the burdens of grief are borne by the adults. By contrast, in the modern literature, it is

children who are consumed with anxiety and grief. The little girl in Two Homes to Live In

worries, “ One time when Daddy was late, I thought what if he doesn't come at all?"

        The COD in literature suffer other losses as well, such as a change in their

household and neighborhood. Living in divided households, the children are on the move,

constantly changing locations and schedules. The illustrations show children packing and

unpacking, getting in and out of cars, coming and going, saying hello and good-bye. The

suitcase seems to be the only secure fixture.

        In children’s literature, more than in any statistics, we begin to grasp the real cost

of the divorce revolution (Whitehead, 1996).

Interventions

        Post-divorce adjustment is affected by the quality of family life and the parent-

child relationships, the amount of conflict within the family unit, the degree of
                                     Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 13


cooperation between the parents, and the support available to the child. Children who live

in homes which have family support and parental control tend to thrive well in the midst

of divorce. Urge parents to consider these findings and take classes on conflict-resolution

and parenting skills, and to focus on their child’s emotional needs.

       School counselors, psychologists, or social workers can assist classroom teachers

with ideas and resources for helping parents and children cope with divorce. The

Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP) is a sixteen-week preventive

intervention program for young urban children of divorce. A study suggests that this type

of focused, time-limited, school-based group intervention can enhance children’s ability

to cope with the stressful experiences often associated with parental divorce.

       See the attached handouts with suggestions for teacher interventions, resources,

and other curriculum.

       Students with acute acting-out behaviors because of a recent family crisis are

often referred for family therapy, and students with chronic acting out behaviors are often

referred for special education evaluation. In a study where students were referred for

special education assessment due to behavioral difficulties and whose parents were

recently divorced or separated, community agency counselors taught a conflict-resolution

course. Results suggest that this type of intervention can reduce the number of students

placed in special education for divorce-related acting out behaviors. (Dykeman, 2003).
                                     Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 14


                                       References

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Bienenfeld, F. (1987). Helping your child succeed after divorce. Claremont, CA: Hunter
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                                    Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 15


Hoyt, Cowen, Pedro-Carroll, and Alpert-Gillis, (1990). Anxiety and Depression in Young
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                                   Effects of Divorce on Children and Interventions 16


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