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

1. Introduction

Recent reports completed for the Department of Justice Canada have demonstrated that large numbers of Canadian children are exposed to their parents' divorce (e.g. Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999; Stewart, 2000).  These studies have suggested that the divorce rate has been increasing steadily in Canada since the late 1970s and peaked in 1987 when approximately 96,200 divorces were recorded.  However, after 1987 the rate of divorce decreased to the 1996 statistic of 71,528 divorces, with custody orders for approximately 47,000 children subject of custody orders (Stewart, 2001).  In addition, an increasing number of Canadian children are being born to common-law couples.  Because common-law couples, in comparison to married couples, appear to have a significantly higher tendency to separate (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999; O'Connor and Jenkins, 2001), many Canadian children are experiencing the dissolution of their parents' common-law relationship, a factor not included in official divorce statistics in Canada (Stewart, 2001).  Thus, either because of parental divorce or the dissolution of common-law relationships, a significant number of Canadian children are experiencing parental separation, and so are living in various types of families (single mother, stepfamilies, single father, etc.).  In this report we refer to parental marriage, by which we mean both common-law and legal marriages.  When we refer to parental divorce, we mean the dissolution of the parental relationship, regardless of whether parents were legally married.

A recent project (Stewart 2001) concluded that although the negative impact of divorce on child adjustment is well established in the research literature, professionals have been unable to offer an accepted definition of high conflict or a well developed means of identifying high conflict families.  Similarly, we concluded that there is little consensus on the relative toxicity of different risk factors for children, of which parental conflict is one.  However, as researchers in the area of family conflict, we feel it is worthwhile to outline and review empirical evidence regarding the interrelated issues of divorce, parental conflict, risk and protective factors, and measures of conflict.  Therefore, the current project was undertaken, and the following report written, to address:  1) those factors related to divorce that put children at risk of maladjustment and those that protect children from negative outcomes; and 2) the usefulness, including reliability and validity, of available measures for assessing conflict in families experiencing parental divorce.

Throughout the past five decades, numerous retrospective and prospective studies have been conducted to identify the possible negative effects of divorce on the adjustment of children.  In section 2, we briefly review these studies and highlight the main findings of the research literature.  In section 3, we review the literature related to four components of divorce (absence of non-resident parent, troubled parent-child relationships, economic disadvantage and parental conflict) that are believed to increase the risk of child maladjustment following parental separation.  This literature suggests that some components of the divorce process (such as parental conflict) are consistently and strongly related to child behavioural and emotional difficulties, while others have only a weak association with children's adjustment (e.g. absence of non-resident parent).  Why do some children demonstrate disturbance following divorce while others seem to cope well?  In section 4, we explore this question and discuss how exposure to multiple risks affects child adjustment and how certain factors in children's lives can protect them from the stress of divorce so they are less prone to disturbance.  To assess the impact of parental divorce on child well-being, researchers have used a range of measures.  In section 5, we review various measures of marital satisfaction, interparental conflict and post-divorce conflict.  Measures are briefly described and the psychometric properties of each are outlined.  We conclude with several issues that need to be considered in order to move in the direction of using such research measures in a clinical manner.  Finally, in section 6, a summary of the information presented in the entire report is provided, as well as program and policy implications that arise from the reviewed literature.

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