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

6. Summary and Implications

Divorce is one of the most prevalent stressors in the lives of Canadian children today; it is accompanied by numerous changes and challenges that have been shown to tax the adjustment of children.  To identify the impact of parental separation on the well-being of children, numerous studies have been undertaken.  These studies were briefly reviewed in section 2, which showed consistent evidence indicating a significant difference between children from divorced and intact families on various indices of well-being, such as academic success, parent-child relationships and emotional and behavioural adjustment.  Children of divorced parents have been found to be less well adjusted than children from continuously intact families.  However, we also emphasized that while empirical research illustrates that divorce is a risk factor for child maladjustment, most children cope successfully with the stress of parental separation.

What factors associated with the process of divorce increase the risk of children developing adjustment problems?  This question was considered in section 3, where empirical evidence was reviewed related to four central components of divorce (non-residential parental absence, troubled parent-child relationships, economic disadvantage and parental conflict.)  The first component discussed was the absence of the non-resident parent from the child's everyday life following divorce.  It has been hypothesized that the absence of the non-resident parent, usually the father, accounts for the maladjustment seen in some children from divorced families.  In general, strong support for this hypothesis is lacking, because a consistent and significant association has not been established between paternal visitation frequency and child well-being.  However, other dimensions of father involvement, such as payment of child support, authoritative parenting and feelings of closeness, can and do have positive effects on children's adjustment following divorce.  Therefore, what a father does with his children when he is with them is much more important than the amount of time he spends with them.

A second component of the divorce process that has consistently been found to be stressful for children is troubled parent-child relationships following divorce.  Research indicates that the parent-child relationship deteriorates following parental divorce and that divorce may exacerbate normative difficulties between parents and children.  Similarly, in section 3 we reviewed research findings that support the claim that decreased family income following divorce is a third component of divorce with a negative impact on child well-being.  This association has been consistently demonstrated, as has the finding that the father's payment of child support is associated with positive child outcomes, such as academic success and positive child behaviours.

Although varying degrees of support can be found in the research literature pertaining to the different components of divorce and child adjustment, the association between parental conflict and child maladjustment is unequivocal.  High degrees of anger-based parental conflict, both before and after parents separate, is harmful to children.  In fact, some research suggests that children from intact high conflict families exhibit lower levels of well-being than children from divorced families.  Therefore, anger-based interparental conflict is a strong predictor, and risk factor, of child maladjustment regardless of the family type in which the child is living, whether intact, divorced or stepfamily.

There are several policy implications of the above findings but, before considering them, a word of caution is indicated.  We have made suggestions about policies and programs that follow logically from the divorce and conflict literature that has been reviewed.  Our recommendations are not based on the results of policies and programs that have already been evaluated, as this was beyond the scope of this project.  The following recommendations must be viewed with this in mind.

First, as anger-based parental conflict has been shown to be a consistent predictor of child well-being, policies and programs that decrease 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 to young adults.  Any program that helps young adults towards better problem-solving skills in their relationships, even before they have children, might help decrease children's exposure to subsequent parental conflict.  In addition, helping parents who are undergoing a divorce, as well as the professionals working with them, to understand how conflict exposure affects children might also help to reduce children's conflict exposure.  It may be possible to use conflict measures 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 with low conflict.

The second implication of the findings described above is that policies targeted to the economic and parent-child relationship components of the divorce process would also be beneficial to children.  For instance, safeguarding the custodial parents' income would be likely to decrease parental stress, thus positively affecting the parent-child relationship.

Why do some children manifest difficulties following the divorce of their parents, while others appear to cope successfully?  In section 3, we saw that some of the difference can be explained by the fact that divorces differ in their component parts.  For example, when a divorce involves increased economic disadvantage, parental conflict and problems in the parent-child relationship, the stress for the child is greater.  However, such components do not account for all of the unexplained variation in children's adjustment.  This is because divorce occurs in a context of many other circumstances, both before and after parental separation, that place children at risk for maladjustment.  In section 4, we discussed 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 by divorce than others.  One of the important findings from research on children's exposure to stressful events is that risk factors can potentiate one another:  when several risk factors occur, their effects are cumulative.  In other words, risks combine to multiply detrimental effects in children.  The 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 be expected to reduce the impact of high conflict on children.

Findings from research on protective factors show that some children do not show adjustment problems following parental divorce because of pre-existing factors in their lives that help them cope with the stress.  Two studies that have examined protective factors in divorced families have found that warmth in the mother-child relationship and a temperament trait, positive emotionality, are important in buffering children from the stress of divorce.  This has two implications.  One is that there are naturally occurring factors in children's lives which protect them, and that it may be possible to increase such factors through parental health education programs.  The second is that knowing which children are likely to show more problems in the face of divorce (those who exhibit less positive emotionality) helps to target available services to those in need.

The measurement of anger-based parental conflict is well established in the research literature.  In section 5, we reviewed various general and specific measures and provided details about their psychometric properties.  The Dyadic Adjustment Scale is an example of a general measure of dyadic satisfaction.  The Conflict Tactics Scale, on the other hand, is an example of a specific measure of dyadic conflict that has been repeatedly shown to be reliable and valid.  Although general measures are widely used, and demonstrate good psychometric properties, specific measures of dyadic conflict have been found to be better predictors of long-term adjustment in children than general measures of dyadic satisfaction.  Although 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 of the steps necessary for their use as clinical instruments were described in section 5.

Also in section 5, we reviewed measures of child well-being.  One of the policy implications is that it may be possible to use measures of parental conflict and child well-being as screening tools to identify vulnerable children and families.  As our review of protective factors demonstrated, many children will not show difficulties as a result of divorce.  By combining the measurement of parental conflict and child well-being, the ability to identify children most likely to be negatively affected by divorce would be increased.  A review of measures to examine component parts of divorce (payment of child support, the quality of the parent-child relationship) was beyond the scope of this review.  It is, however, the case that if such measures were combined with those on conflict and child-well-being, our ability to identify those children and families most in need of services would again be increased.

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