The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review


The connection between custody/access arrangements and children’s adjustment

In a study of 51 children, Jacobson (1978a) examined the connection between time spent with each parent and children’s adjustment to divorce. She concluded that both boys and girls showed maladjustment problems when their time with the father was limited or restricted. These children showed significant problems in the areas of social, emotion and academic development.

Steinman (1981) studied 32 children living in joint physical custody arrangements over three years. This study found that the majority of the parents involved were generally satisfied with the arrangement, despite certain difficulties, while the children involved were less satisfied. These children stated clearly that they preferred marriage over divorce, even if there was conflict between the parents. They generally found joint custody arrangements inconvenient, and one-third of the children showed a significant degree of psychological distress from the joint custody arrangement.

Steinman et al. (1985) identified a list of factors found in families that experienced a negative outcome to joint physical custody:

  • intense, continuing hostility and conflict that cannot be diverted from the child;

  • overwhelming anger and a continuing need to punish the spouse;

  • history of physical abuse;

  • history of substance abuse;

  • a fixed belief that the other is a bad parent; and

  • an inability of parents to separate their own feelings and needs from those of the child.

Luepnitz (1986) compared 43 families living in either maternal (n=16), paternal (n=16), or joint physical custody (n=11) in an attempt to connect custody arrangements with children’s adjustment to divorce. The 91 children showed little difference in adjustment based on custody arrangement. However, this study did indicate that children in joint physical custody arrangements had more normal parent-child relationships than children in sole custody arrangements, where the children’s relationship with the non-custodial parent tended to become avuncular in nature.

Shiller (1985) concluded that boys who lived in a joint physical custody arrangements seemed to adjust to divorce better than those boys who lived most of the time with their mothers.

Kline et al. (1989) found that the actual custody arrangement had little effect on children’s adjustment, but the parents’ emotional adjustment to divorce and the post-separation child-care arrangements had significant impact on the children. In families where a parent became anxious or depressed about the divorce, the children developed a high rate of psychological and social problems. They also found that boys fared less well than girls in terms of adjustment, and that inter-parental hostility caused significant difficulties for all children, regardless of custody arrangement.

Analysis and conclusions

The studies cited in this chapter can be divided into four methodological types:

  • psychometric evaluations, where children whose parents have divorced are given a battery of tests to determine the link between divorce and the children’s psychological profiles;

  • longitudinal studies of large sample groups, where all children in a geographic area are tested in order to draw comparisons between the profiles of children from divorced families and those from intact families;

  • narrative studies, where children are interviewed and describe how their parents’ divorce has affected them;

  • comparative studies, which compare the outcomes for children living in various custody/access arrangements.

The psychometric evaluations have definite limitations in that they do not have initial benchmarks for showing how these children were doing before their parents separated. However, they do provide lists of risk factors that can be connected to the children’s psychological, social and academic adjustment and achievement after divorce.

The longitudinal studies fall into two types: those that look at how large numbers of children are functioning over time, regardless of family type; and those that take information from large national surveys and try to draw cause and effect conclusions about the effects of divorce on children. The first type of research is very useful in that it provides benchmarks of how most children of a certain age group function at home, at school and in their communities. Unfortunately, these benchmarks are not often referred to in other studies specifically aimed at divorced families. These longitudinal studies also provide a before-and-after picture of divorcing families.

These large sample studies, including the reports from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth in Canada, often result in findings that are in sharp contrast to the findings of other small sample studies. These studies do not explain or comment on the discrepancies between the findings of different types of studies.

Another difficulty with these large-scale studies is that they do not factor out other events in a child’s life when drawing conclusions about how divorce affects children. These studies are often so large in scale that it is difficult to specifically connect divorce with a particular set of outcomes, but they are able to make general conclusions about the relationship between divorce and a group of negative outcomes for children.

The narrative studies are very limited in that they often do not use any objective criteria to measure the stress and upset described by children and parents. These studies, particularly the long-term ones, however, do offer a personal view of the lives of children of divorce.

A major difficulty with all these types of research studies is their lack of consistent use of effective measurement tools. As a result, studies use a variety of measures, including psychometric tests and self reporting. Similarly, samples are drawn from a variety of sources, including large-scale national surveys and small random samplings of clients who receive counselling or legal assistance from a particular agency. These disparities result in a research picture filled with inconsistencies and fluctuations with few accepted standards for replication. At best, this field of investigation is left with surveys that provide profiles but no hard and proven data about divorce and its complications for children. It tells us that something is wrong, but the research is not sophisticated enough to be able to accurately list, from study to study, those precisely defined factors that contribute to the negative outcomes for children.

In spite of these limitations, these four types of research, taken together, do provide a picture of roughly defined risk factors that divorce seems to set off in families and that seem to lead to negative outcomes for children. These risk factors include:

  • episodes of violence;

  • ongoing inter-parental conflict and hostility;

  • sudden and/or frequent changes of residence and schools;

  • interruption of peer relationships;

  • economic hardship;

  • disruption of parenting routines and abilities;

  • introduction of new adult partners;

  • remarriage;

  • loss of contact with the non-custodial parent;

  • psychological maladjustment of one or both parents; and

  • loss of security and predictability.

These risk factors can be divided into two types. Episodic factors, such as changes of residence and schools, and the introduction of new partners and remarriage, can be measured each time they occur. Emotional/psychological/relationship factors, such as inter-parental conflict and the psychological adjustment of one or both parents, cannot be easily measured and require more sophisticated study in order to develop more clear definition, both in terms of frequency and intensity. Such clear definition is necessary to develop defining criteria for such things as inter-parental conflict and hostility.

Collectively, these risk factors seem directly connected to a variety of negative outcomes for children, including:

  • psychological disorders (depression and anxiety);

  • long-term feelings of sadness, loss and anger;

  • underachievement at school and in employment;

  • social problems, including deviant and delinquent behaviour;

  • higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse;

  • poor parent-child relationships; and

  • poor adult relationships, due to a lack of trust, and with a high incidence of early divorce.

One consistently mentioned risk factor in many studies is continued high conflict between divorced parents. Trying to understand this phenomena in the lives of separated and divorced families is the focus of the next chapter.

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