By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Children’s Adjustment to Parental Divorce: The Role of Conflict
The First in a Three Part Series About Children of Divorce
By far, this is one of the most commonly asked questions about divorce. Even though I’ve lectured on this topic many times, I still find myself pausing and choosing my words carefully. The reason why this question is so difficult for me to answer is because every family is different and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to divorce. Other reasons include: conflict plays a large role in children’s divorce adjustment and there is quite a lot of controversy about research findings.
Consequently, I will break down my answer into three parts or a series of blogs. This series will be posted over the next six weeks and will stay on this site (in case you miss one). It is as follows: Part 1: Should Parents Stay Together for the Sake of the Children? Part 2: What are the Long-term Effects of Parental Divorce on Children into Adulthood? Part 3: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce.
Whether parents should stay together for the sake of their children depends to a large degree on the level of stress and disruption in family relationships associated with an unhappy or conflictual marriage. An important question is: would the well-being of the children be enhanced by a move to a divorced, single-parent family? If the answer is yes, then a divorce can be advantageous. However, if a divorce will expose children to diminished resources, such as more conflict and more difficulty parenting, the answer may be stay together.
The challenge is to decide how the “ifs” will play out whether parents stay together in an adversarial marriage or decide to divorce. In terms of the long-tem effects of divorce, some adults raised in divorced homes report they would have preferred that their parents part ways earlier – rather than stay in an acrimonious marriage. For instance, in a recent Huffington Post Divorce series Lessons I Learned from My Parents, Mark B. Baer, Esq., a family divorce lawyer and foremost legal authority writes: “As I mentioned previously, my parents’ marriage was miserable from the onset, even though they remained married for over 20 years for “the sake of the children.” In his series, Mark goes on to detail infidelity, high conflict, and parent alienation and gives the reader the impression that he and his siblings would have fared better if his parents had ended their marriage earlier. He reminds us that as a society we don’t always take many things into consideration with regard to the “best interests of the child.”
Let’s face it, marital conflict can have negative consequences for children whether their parents are married or divorced. In a longitudinal study spanning over many years, renowned divorce researcher Paul Amato found that conflict in intact families was associated with emotional problems in children. Amato also points out that many of the problems children of divorce face begin during the predivorce period since it is a time of increased conflict for most parents. Thus, an increase in emotional problems experienced by children after divorce may well be due not only to dealing with their parents’ divorce but marital conflict that led up to it.
In her landmark book For Better or For Worse, eminent psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington highlights the results of her study of 1,400 families and the importance of examining the type of conflict children experience. She notes that high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive, and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle, has the most adverse consequences for children.
In another review of this topic, Paul Amato states “When parents engage in a pattern of chronic, overt, destructive conflict, children may be no worse off (and perhaps better off) if the marriage ends in divorce.” The main finding highlighted by Amato and Hetherington is this: while parental divorce may expose children to more risk factors for subsequent social and psychological problems, that association is moderate and the majority of youth (75%) reach adulthood as well-functioning individuals. Even the late divorce expert Judith Wallerstein who tended to emphasize the detrimental impact of parental divorce writes “Children raised in extremely unhappy homes or violent homes face misery in childhood and tragic consequences in adulthood.” She goes on to say, “I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.”
On a related topic, most parents remarry within six years post-divorce and many second marriages can be happier than the ones left behind. For many children, remarriage can be seen as a resource that can bring the addition of more financial security, support, and opportunities to observe appropriate role models for marriage (Hetherington). However, Amato writes, “The evidence that parental remarriage is more likely to help or harm children is mixed. Nevertheless, parental remarriage makes it possible to experience a second (or third) remarriage prior to reaching adulthood, and some studies show that multiple divorces are more problematic for children than a single divorce.”
The one thing that all divorce researchers agree upon is that family functioning – including level of conflict among family members – matters a great deal when it comes to looking at the adjustment of children. Hetherington concludes that while divorce might cause a huge disruption in the family following divorce – by two years later, stabilization and parenting skills have usually improved. It’s clear that conflict between parents, whether it occurs in an intact, divorced, or remarried family is associated with a wide range of negative effects for children.
A recent study by psychologist Robert Bauserman and published by the American Psychological Association was highlighted in an interesting article entitled Equal Split (Cheryl Kane Heimlich, Boca Raton Observer; 9/2013). Conducting a meta-analysis that compiled data from thirty three studies over seventeen years, Bauserman found that children in joint-custody arrangements had fewer emotional problems and better school performance than children in sole-custody arrangements. He also reported that parents who shared parenting also had lower levels of conflict. Bauserman attributes this to them being able to equally participant in their children’s lives. Previously, studies with anecdotal evidence suggested that parents who shared custody had higher levels of conflict than those who don’t.
Here is a summary of findings regarding whether it is better for parents who are involved in a conflict-ridden, acrimonious marriage to stay together for their children:
- Divorce is painful but sometimes necessary if a child is exposed to certain types of conflict or abuse. At times, the well-being of a child is enhanced after divorce but every family situation is unique. Whether a child will benefit or be harmed by divorce depends on how many resources and stressors are present.
- Avoid exposing your child to high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle.
- Examine factors that influence an individual child’s vulnerability to suffering negative consequences of divorce if it occurs. These factors include: the child’s temperament, gender, and parenting plan.
- Attempt to practice joint custody or shared parenting if you divorce because most research shows that children in these situations fare better than those in sole-custody situations (given there isn’t any abuse).
- Minimize adversarial interactions and encourage positive bonds between both parents after a divorce. This is especially important for fathers since this is the relationship that’s most vulnerable to disruption after divorce.
In sum, many factors are involved in determining how divorce influences a child’s adjustment. In part two of the series, I will explore the impact of parental divorce into adulthood. Part three will address: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce. I’d love to hear from you if you have questions or comments.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”