How do we understand the impact of divorce upon children? Wallerstein, Corbin and Lewis (1988, p. 197) state:
For divorce, as we have fully recognised, is not a single circumscribed event, but a multistage process of radically changing family relationships. This process begins in the failing marriage, sometimes many years prior to the marital breakdown, may include one or more separations within the marriage, and extend over years following the decisive separation and the legal divorce.
They go on to suggest that the phenomenon of divorce itself has had a profound effect on society as a whole, changing patterns of relationships and attitudes to family, raising anxiety between men and women, and between children and their parents.
They studied children of different ages to consider the developmental impact. Their view was that overall the main hazard to psychological health for the children was the disrupted parenting, ongoing parental conflicts, the flawed or tragic role models of parents who are subsequently unable to stablise their lives, the diminished quality of life for the children, the economic deprivation, and the curtailed educational and social opportunities.
One area that is particular cause for concern is the effect of divorce on antisocial behaviour in boys. Forgatch, Patterson and Skinner (1988) suggest that where there is a single mother under stress, post divorce there may be inept discipline (that is inconsistent mothering and then explosive discipline) and that this inept discipline leads to the child's antisocial behaviour that involves aggressive, defiant and destructive problems. O'Connor and colleagues (2001) have shown that behavioural and emotional problems were increased in children, in step-mother/complex step-families and single-parent families, but not in simple step-father families. The psychopathology was associated with family type and was explained by the compromised quality of the parent-child relationship, parental depression and socio-economic adversity.
Children, post divorce, growing up in step-families, are also known to show more developmental difficulties than those with both biological parents, particularly behavioural and emotional adjustment. However, they have fewer learning problems and show better physical health than those in single-parent families (Zill, 1988).
There seems to be general agreement that children under 5, when a parent leaves, particularly if it was the main carer, are those most at risk of long-term effects (Smith, 1999). Primary and secondary school children can be troubled long term, with anger, distress and poor concentration at school. Older children can react with risk-taking behaviour, staying out, cutting themselves, and eating disorders. The conflicting feelings about themselves, their identity and self-esteem is linked to their conflicting feelings about their parents (Zimmerman et al., 1997). Harter (1999) suggests self-esteem depends on the competence and the adequacy of the young person, and approval from significant others particularly where there is a long-term supportive relationship. Where there has been domestic violence there is considerably more trauma to the child (Hemmings et al., 1997).
Rodgers and Pryor (1998) estimate that 19% of children born to married couples will experience parental divorce by the age of 10 and 28% by age 16. Haskey (1993,1994) states that in the early 1990s in England and Wales 160 000 families with children under 16 went through the experience of parental divorce. Of these children one in three was under 5, and a further 7000 were between 5 and 10 years. Dunn, Deater-Deckard, Pickering, O'Connor, Golding and Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (ALSPAC) Team (1998) have looked at a community sample to examine the implications for children. The risk factors are socio-economic, parental mental health and well-being (such as depression), patterns of family relations with a high level of conflict and a lack of coherence or joint activities, poor educational achievement, transitions in family settings, and finally subsequent cohabitations. They studied these in the ALSPAC, which looked at 7219 4-year-olds and 4071 older siblings and compared those in this sample who were in intact families and those in single- and step-parent families post divorce. The children who were reported to be more hyperactive were also likely to have peer problems and conduct disorder and the boys' levels of problems in this study were higher than the girls. However, the differences were not great and the difficulties seemed to be significantly linked to negativity in the mother-child relationship, for example, where there was a battle of wills and/or where the children were seen as irritating, and as making excessive noise and mess. They also concluded that the direct impact on older children of transitions was important in their adjustment, but not for the 4-year-olds.
The recognition of domestic violence and intractable hostility in matrimonial disputes has lead to increasing use of mental health services both to assess the degree of disturbance of the child caught in the crossfire and to advise on residence, contact, and the need for support or treatment for the children.
A mother had stopped her two daughters' contact with father. She insisted they were reluctant to go and that they returned very distressed. She described how her elder daughter had told her about kisses and cuddles with dad that made the daughter feel uncomfortable. Mother felt this was quite inappropriate. Dad had been quite distant and uninvolved before the separation and divorce. Mother emerged as very angry, resentful and bitter about her ex-husband. She loathed him and alleged domestic violence and excessive sexual demands. Father saw mother as a vicious, vindictive, destructive person poisoning their children against him. If the parents met there were hostile enraged exchanges. The elder, 9 years old, a sad rather depressed child who was desperate to do well at school and was struggling, declared she did not wish to see father ever again. However, the younger daughter, 6 years old, shyly and warily in front of her sister said she loved her dad and wanted to see him but it was hard as mum and her sister were against it. The suggestion of contact for the younger girl with father and his extended family, and a group meeting for the older girl, did not please either parent but seemed what the children could manage.
A boy, aged 14, was enraged with both his parents as they continued to fight with each other and over him. He had a home visit with each of them and lived part of the week with each. Mother alleged emotional and psychological abuse and domestic violence. Father alleged persecution and complete unreasonableness with impossible demands and expectations as he worked at his new relationship. Their son was right. Both mother and father were preoccupied with their own versions of events. He stopped school, was in a group of young people that drank, roamed the streets and stole what they could find, including from their parents' homes. His contempt, bitterness and lack of remorse were worrying. The parents could stop blaming each other just long enough to hear that their son was in trouble. A boarding school was suggested and greeted by all with horror. The Court ordered joint parental responsibility, with the boy resident with mother in the week and alternate weekends, and one evening with father and alternate weekends. No one was satisfied and the boy left home to stay with a friend.
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