An Overview of the Risks and Protectors for Children of Separation and Divorce

Executive Summary

Canadian children face many stresses that can affect their social and emotional adjustment.  The separation and subsequent divorce of parents is one such source of stress.  The purpose of this paper is two-fold:  to examine the factors related to divorce that put children at risk of maladjustment and protect them from negative consequences; and to review the usefulness of available measures for assessing conflict in families experiencing parental divorce.

We begin by reviewing the empirical research related to the impact of parental separation on the well-being of children.  Based on this review, we have concluded that some children of separated and divorced parents are less well adjusted than children of continuously intact families on various indices, including academic achievement, parent-child relationships, and emotional and behavioural adjustment.  However, we stress that most children who experience the separation of their parents adjust successfully.

Risk Factors

After establishing the association between parental divorce and child maladjustment in section 2, we then consider in section 3 the various factors related to the divorce process that increase the risk of maladjustment in children.  Four central components of divorce (absence of non-resident parent, troubled parent-child relationships, economic disadvantage and parental conflict) are reviewed to illustrate that some factors are more strongly related to child behavioural and emotional difficulties than others.  For instance, there is little support for the assertion that children experience maladjustment following divorce because of the absence of their non-resident parent alone.  Rather, there are indications that other factors related to parental involvement (e.g. payment of child support, authoritative parenting) are more important for a child's well-being than the frequency of contact with the non-resident parent.

Research consistently indicates that troubled parent-child relationships and lowered family income following divorce have a negative impact on child adjustment.  Moreover, while the effects of various aspects of divorce on child adjustment is demonstrated in the literature to varying degrees, the association between parental conflict and child maladjustment is unequivocal.  Inter-parental anger and conflict are strong predictors of, and risk factors for, child maladjustment regardless of the family type in which the child is living: intact, divorced or stepfamily.

There are several policy implications to these findings concerning risk factors.  These recommendations are based solely on the divorce and conflict literature we reviewed for this paper, and not on the results of policies and programs which have already been evaluated.

First, since parental conflict has been shown to be a consistent predictor of child well-being, policies and programs that reduce children's exposure to such conflict are likely to be beneficial.  For example, preventative programs might take the form of public health or school-based education programs targeted at young adults.  Any program that helps young adults develop better problem-solving skills within their relationships, even before they have children, might lead to a decrease in the incidence of children's exposure to parental conflict.  In addition, helping parents who are undergoing a divorce (and the professionals working with them) to understand how exposure to conflict affects children might also serve to decrease interparental conflict.  Conflict assessment measures also may be used as screening instruments to target services more effectively.  For instance, it is possible that families in high conflict might benefit from different procedures when going through the courts than families experiencing lower levels of conflict.

Second, policies and programs focussed on the economic components of the divorce process would also be beneficial to children.  For example, safe-guarding the custodial parents' income would be likely to decrease parental stress, thereby positively affecting the parent-child relationship.

Protective Factors

Why do some children manifest difficulties following the divorce of their parents while others appear to cope successfully?  This difference can be explained by the fact that divorces differ in their component parts.  However, such components do not account for all of the unexplained variations in a child's adjustment.  In section 4, we examine how both exposure to multiple risks and the beneficial effects of protective factors must be considered as we try to understand why some children are more negatively affected than others.  One of the important findings from research on children's exposure to stressful events is that when several risk factors occur, they combine to multiply detrimental effects in children.  One implication of this is that policies or programs geared to reducing the occurrence of even one risk are likely to be beneficial because they reduce the potency or negative impact of other risks on child adjustment.  For instance, any policy that addresses family income or family benefits for divorced families could also be expected to reduce the impact of high conflict on children.  Another implication is the potential benefit of designing policies or programs to address a number of risk factors.

Findings from research on protective factors show that some children do not have adjustment problems following parental divorce because of pre-existing factors (e.g. warmth in the parent-child relationship, positive emotionality) in their lives that help them cope with the stress.  This has two implications.  First, there are naturally occurring factors in children's lives that protect them; it may be possible to increase the impact of these factors through parental education programs.  Second, knowing which children are likely to show more problems in the face of divorce (i.e. those without positive pre-existing factors) helps to target available services to those in need.

Measurement of Conflict

The measurement of anger-based parental conflict is well established in the research literature.  In section 5, we review various general and specific measures and provide details about their psychometric properties.  Although general measures are widely used and demonstrate good psychometric properties, specific measures of dyadic conflict are better predictors of long-term adjustment in children than are general measures of dyadic satisfaction.  While the measurement of conflict is well established, the application of conflict measures as clinical instruments (to make decisions about individual children and families) has not been established.  Some steps necessary for their use as clinical instruments are described in section 5.

One of the policy implications of section 5 is that it may be possible to use measures of parental conflict as screening tools to identify vulnerable children and families.  Another implication has to do with child measures.  In section 5 we also review measures of childhood disturbance, which are well established.  If a program or service delivery objective is to identify children who are likely to fare less well following the divorce of their parents, then a good strategy would be to use a well established conflict measure in conjunction with a child adjustment measure.

A review of other measures to examine the components of divorce (payment of child support, the quality of the parent-child relationship) was beyond the scope of this review.  However, if such measures were combined with those for conflict and child well-being, our ability to identify those children and families most in need of services would be further increased.

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