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Does divorce create long-term negative effects for children?

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           The study of psychological development of children and youth, though a relatively new field, has fast become a central point for both discussion and research among psychologists.  Research and experiments have uncovered mysteries that were previously unknown about what processes occur during the development of a child. Perhaps a crucial application for this research is to question what negative effects divorce has on child development. Does this specific developmental hindrance have any long-term negative effects on children?  By careful examination of previous studies on divorce, it can easily be seen that both the negative effects, and progression of these effects, are detrimental to the development and emotional stability of children. Perhaps it may even be possible to get a glimpse into how these long-term effects will change in the future.

          According to alarming statistics, the divorce rate in


industrialized Western countries is at its all time high.  In 1965, the


divorce rate in the United States was 10.6 per 1000 marriages. By


1978, this number had increased to 22.8 (Price & Kennedy, 1988). 


Divorce rates in Canada had reached their peak in 1997 with a rate


of 50.6 percent .Alarming statistics indeed, and therefore we must


explore why this shift has happened. Could it be that in our time we


are trying to fit into some societal norms, causing a rush into this life-


altering commitment too quickly? Could it be in reaction to history-


graded events that have occurred during this time? And what are the


negative repercussions of this difficult and often traumatic


experience on the couple, the family, and most importantly the




        Let us now review the history of marriage, and what factors may


have contributed to the dramatic increase in divorce rates over the


past decades. Until the last century, women practiced a more


traditional role; most women were married by their early twenties.


They were then destined to a life of having children, taking care of


their husbands, and maintaining domestic chores. At one time,


divorce was considered a form of punishment for any man guilty of


adultery, impotence, or desertion, thus few women even


contemplated the option (Price & McKenry, 1988). During the 18th


Century, divorce had become a matter of civil laws over religious


institutions, making divorce more accessible to citizens (Phillips,


1991). In more recent years, analysis of divorce rates from the


1950’s compared to data from the 1970’s shows a significant


increase had occurred, prompting a closer look into the details or


reasons behind these numbers

Contrary to popular belief, the rates of marriages have dramatically increased. Marriage is more popular than ever before, but so is divorce. Many factors are believed to have contributed to such a drastic shift in the divorce rate. Some of the most influential factors are societal and economic conditions, the rise of feminism, and reform of divorce laws. The socioeconomic turmoil following the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War was unprecedented. World War II affected marriages because couples were apart for so long, creating opportunities for extra-marital affairs. After the war was over, the readjustment was sometimes impossible (Price & McKenry, 1988). Wars made women indispensable to the work force. Consequently, there was a rise in women’s independence and assertiveness, as well as their financial security. Women were getting educations, were becoming part of the work force, were having fewer children, and were fighting to get equal rights; feminism flourished (Price and McKenry, 1988).

Contemporary society has accepted the commonality of divorce - one likely reason behind the growing phenomena - and there are many negative repercussions of divorce on the families, but most importantly on the children, that demand attention. When couples finally decide to terminate their relationship, divorce is not likely the beginning of their tumultuous journey. Arguments and emotional turmoil have most likely been a part of their daily lives for quite some time. At this stage, the children may have already paid the price of such an unhealthy environment.  Lengthy legal battles may occur. Parents often fight over custody of their children, and without any doubt, the children’s concept of the world as a safe and reliable environment may be reinterpreted (Hetherington & Arasteh, 1988). In order to understand the different stages of emotional distress, it is important to look at one of the most intensive longitudinal research studies in past research.

The California Children of Divorce Project started in 1971 and ended in 1981 (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1981, as cited in Hetherington & Arasteh, 1988). The research sample included 60 families in 1971, and by the time the study was over, 52 families were remaining. The families participated in an initial interview within the first year following their divorce, then reassessments were conducted after 18 months, 5 years, and 10 years. It is also important to note that at the beginning of the study, the children were in healthy psychological states, and all of the children who had been referred to a psychologist were excluded from the research sample.

In the initial assessment, the children’s responses to the marital breakdown were examined in terms of their behavior and their verbal communication. The range of emotional reactions displayed, such as general anxiety, sleep patterns, anger, and separation anxieties, appeared to be correlated with the age of the child. Younger children were more affected, but at this point, no difference in the gender was noticeable. After 18 months, the different reactions between girls and boys were obvious. Boys were showing difficulty in adapting (the sleeper effect), while girls were recovering more quickly. The initial emotional responses also remained persistent. After 5 years, the strong correlation between the psychological adjustment and the overall healthiness of the family life after the divorce was the best predictor of the attitudes and behaviors of the children. Age and gender did not seem to have any impact at this point. After 10 years, most of the children recalled that the divorce of their parents was a turning point in their lives. They were still recalling negative images of their parent’s break-up, and felt deprived of a normal childhood. A significant number of the young women displayed more negative repercussions in their relationships, such as fear of betrayal and attachment. On the other hand, many of the young women still believed that a happy marriage could be attained, and were consciously trying not to replicate their parent’s mistakes.

        In reflection of this study, researchers were surprised by the


negative impact of divorce on women, considering the fact that they


were showing a faster rate of recovery at the 18 months assessment.


The researchers also concluded that the impact of the divorce itself


was not the most negative influence, but one of the major negative


influences on children was the inability for the parents to restore a


healthy relationship with their children and ex-partner following the


divorce. Researchers also believed that having a good support


system was one of the best resources that the children had in order


to help them ease their way back into their ‘not so perfect world.’

 In the present, it is more likely that people will divorce partly because of more lenient divorce laws, and partly because society has become more accepting of the idea. This increase creates an entirely new generation of children for which researchers can examine the long-term effects of divorce. According to many contemporary theorists, divorce can have long lasting negative effects on children (Amato, 2000; Ross & Mirowski, 1999; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000; Wolfinger, Kowalski-Jones, & Smith, 2003). In the past ten years, researchers examining negative effects of divorce on children have focused on topics such as delayed social maturation, the sleeper effect, the increased likelihood of marital instability or dissolution, and the lower levels of academic achievement and socioeconomic status. As more and more marriages dissolve, researchers recognize the importance of understanding the impacts that divorce can have on children’s long-term development. This is important in ensuring that proper interventions may be established to help families cope with the stressful situations that often lead to these adverse effects. 

Recent studies have shown that the long-term negative effects of divorce vary widely amongst individuals (Amato, 2000), but may display many similarities within siblings who experience the same divorce (Wolfinger, Kowaleski-Jones, & Smith, 2003). Family circumstances surrounding divorce, such as the degree of parental conflict, changes in parenting styles, loss of contact from the nonresidential parent, and changes in financial resources may play key roles in determining problems in long-term adjustment. Wolfinger and his colleagues (2003) conducted an investigation into whether siblings who experience the same divorce are impacted differently, and whether divorce has long-term negative consequences for marital stability and level of education attained later in life.  The results of their study indicate that siblings, regardless of differences in age or gender, experience similar long-term effects from divorce. The study also revealed a negative correlation between divorce and educational attainment, even more significantly for children who grew up in ‘stepfamilies’. In terms of marital stability, the study revealed a significant amount of divorce amongst individuals who had been reared by single divorced mothers. Conversely, those individuals in the study who had been raised in ‘stepfamilies’ had stronger marriages later in life.

Unfortunately, many children today are faced with the challenges of multiple divorces or separations within their families. Parents who divorce often go on to remarry or form other intimate relationships that, as statistics show, have an even higher incidence of failure (Amato, 2000; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000; Ward 2002). One longitudinal study revealed that as many as one half of the adult participants had experienced their mothers and/or fathers divorce more than once (Wallerstein, 1989). This may intensify the difficulties faced by children who have experienced not only the breakdown and subsequent dissolution of their parents’ marriage, but also the loss of stepparents or other parental figures because of additional family break-ups. Consequently, children of divorced families often find it difficult to form and maintain long lasting intimate relationships as young adults (Amato, 2000;Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000).

 Ross and Mirowski (1999) found that individuals in their study who had experienced divorce as a child were significantly more likely to marry young, divorce, remarry, and experience long-term difficulty with interpersonal relationships. Some experts believe this may partially be due to a delay in social maturation, a consequence of having more than the average person does to deal with emotionally. This may interfere during the critical developmental years (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000). The sleeper effect has been found to occur most often when young adults are making the transition into committed relationships. Wallerstein (1989) inferred that fear of betrayal and failure in new relationships, extending from the failure parental marriage, caused emotional distress during this transition period. However, Dunlop and Burns (1995) questioned the validity of these claims after their longitudinal study failed to find any evidence supporting the sleeper effect.

Longitudinal and review studies comparing children of parental divorce and children of intact families have found that lower socioeconomic status is higher amongst individuals whom experienced parental divorce as a child is. Ross and Mirowski (1999) also found significant evidence of a trend towards lower education levels lower socioeconomic status, and higher levels of depression amongst adult children of divorced parents. Amato (2000) explains this as a chain reaction beginning with single parents raising children with limited access to financial resources following divorce. From there, children may give up hope of ever being able to afford post-secondary education, and as a result, settle for lower paying jobs throughout adulthood, and subsequently a lower socioeconomic status, which may contribute to depression. If the evidence presented -which describes empirically based data supporting the notion that divorce has long lasting negative effects on children - is valid, then the possible implications for society need to be considered. Future research is necessary to determine what interventions might be put into place to counteract these long-term consequences so that the children of divorced families might go on to lead healthier lives.        

With divorce rates rising, and multiple divorces becoming increasingly more common, it would seem logical for children to become desensitized to the issue of divorce. An updated study done in 1991 by Amato (2001) looked at the effects of divorce on children in the 90’s. He observed a large decrease in the severity of negative effects of divorce on children between the 80’s and the 90’s, but a surprisingly small increase between the 90’s and the year 2000. He thought it could be explained by “the increase in divorce among less troubled families” (Amato, 2001). Although this was thought to be the cause of the lessened impact, it is now explained as being more distressing to children (Sansky, 2002). There are many negative effects of divorce on the psychological adjustment of children and adolescents. If this is correct, and the increasing rates of divorce are studied further, then an increase in the degree and types of negative side effects of separation on the children may be predicted. These side effects may be observed in their schoolwork, relationships, conduct, and self-concept. The future of this subject will also benefit from examining the coping strategies of children from same-sex married couples whose relationships  end in divorce.

            Desensitization and acceptance of divorce by society may also effect how children will cope with the separation of their parents in the future. Children will always be effected and have to deal with the feelings and emotions that are caused by divorce. Children of divorce are now showing lower marriage rates which Wolfinger suggests is “caused by an increase in cohabitation” Individuals may be more likely to share an environment with someone they love but never get married. Therefore, the divorce rates for children of divorced parents are much lower now than they were in the past 20 years. If these trends continue, then divorce rates may start to decline in the future. Society will then have to look at the effects of on the couple’s relationship, and how this may affect a child should they choose to separate.

            Divorce will never be easy for the families involved. There will always be pain and hurt, court time, custody battles, and many other conflicts associated with divorce. Better family and social support can help buffer the negative effects of divorce on the children of tomorrow. Television programs such as ‘Dr. Phil’ and ‘Oprah’ are promoting the concept of “working it out”. Family therapies and couples therapies are becoming more common, this may help to make home life before separation better and the separation itself easier on children in the future. 

            After studying divorce, and the long-term negative effects it has on children, there is much that has been learned and much more to consider if researchers want to continue to fully understand the issue. They must continue to find methods to improve upon it, and help not just the children who have been victimized, but also the parents. It is essential to find a way to make sure that children do not suffer long-term psychological damage, and ensure that aside from the family conflict, that children and their parents can still enjoy a happy life together.

            Divorce has changed dramatically since the 18th century; it is almost becoming a norm in western culture. In the past, it was against many religions to get a divorce, and it was much more difficult, especially for women, to accomplish this task if they were unhappy with their marriage. Now, however, society does not only see divorce rates increasing, but it makes more programs and services available for parents and their children to help with any problems they may have regarding the divorce. Society has become a lot more accommodating of this problem. With all of the research that has been done, society is becoming much more educated about divorce, why it happens, and the negative effects it can have on children. Based on these studies, it seems that society is doing a better job now of helping children than 20 or even 40 years ago. However, as society heads into the future of divorce and the effects it has on children, there is much more that can be studied. For example, now there are many more same sex couples. Researchers must ask themselves “How do the effects of divorce on children differ if the parents are of the same sex as opposed to being a heterosexual couple?”  This could create additional factors contributing to the long-term negative effects of divorce on children.


          As in the past, psychologists will continue to study divorce and


the long-term effects it will have on children. There will always be new


generations to study from, and new information to be learned. As


mentioned earlier, the divorce rates for people whose parents were


divorced when they were younger is dropping now compared to 20


years ago. Therefore, it may be concluded that society is improving,


in some ways, the lives of people who were once victims of divorce


so that they do not experience the same traumatic events that their


parents were once victims of.

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