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Divorce Rates And Demographics, Impact Of Divorce On Children, Variables That Moderate And Mediate The Impact Of Divorce On Children

Changing economic and social conditions at the beginning of the twentieth century created public concern about family breakdown and ushered in the scientific study of marriage and the family. Central to this emerging science was the identification of the causes, correlates, and consequences of marital dissolution. Increased divorce rates over the course of the century ensured continued focus on this topic and resulted in a large body of research on the impact of divorce on children.

How a Child's Age Affects Divorce's Impact

Various theories of child development suggest that children younger than age five or six are particularly vulnerable to the effects of parental separation. The disruption of attachment relations, combined with the child's limited cognitive abilities to understand divorce, is central to this vulnerability. Although most children are young when their parents separate because divorce risk is greater earlier in marriage (of all children who experience divorce by age twelve, 66% experience it by age six), preschoolers and infants are the least studied groups in the divorce literature. In fact, data on developmental differences in response to parental separation are surprisingly limited.

The ninety-two-study analysis described earlier found roughly equal differences among children in preschool, elementary school, and high school for most outcome measures. But analyzing studies that assess children of different ages at a single point in time confounds children's age at the time of divorce with the amount of time elapsed since the divorce, both of which could account for the results. Data from a large, nationally representative sample of children have been used to avoid this problem. These data demonstrated that children showed greater adjustment with increasing age (e.g., birth to age five, age six to ten, age eleven to sixteen), with the youngest age group being the most severely affected by divorce. Importantly, however, age differences were statistically significant on only one of the nineteen measures used. In sum, robust age-at-separation effects, such as gender effects, have not been empirically demonstrated. Clinical observations, however, show that children's concerns resulting from parental separation and how they express their concerns do vary with age.

Although on average, children from divorced and continuously married homes differ, more striking is the considerable overlap in the distribution of functioning in these two groups. Perhaps the most salient feature found through research is the individual variability in the impact of divorce on children. To gain a deeper understanding, one therefore must go beyond group comparisons to investigate the time course, moderators, and mediators of children's adaptation after divorce and clearly recognize that divorce is a process that begins prior to the physical separation of parents and may continue long after. Although the separation may be the single most salient event in the divorce process for children, it represents just one of a long series of events that may challenge their adaptation; the nature and number of events as well as what children bring to them is likely to account, in part, for the variability in child outcome.

Time Course of Children's Adaptation to Divorce

It is common for children to experience sadness, anxiety, anger, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms in the months following a parental separation. Indeed, for the first one to two years after divorce both boys and girls tend to show subclinical behavioral and emotional distress and are likely to be more oppositional, do more poorly in school, and have difficulties getting along with peers. After this "crisis" period abates, however, adjustment problems tend to decline but the gap in psychological well-being between offspring in divorced and continuously married families remains and may increase over time. Indeed, parental divorce continues to affect individuals into adulthood and is associated with multiple problems, including marital distress, low socioeconomic attainment, and poor subjective well-being. Individuals whose parents divorce are also more likely to get divorced themselves, which may reflect difficulties in developing satisfying interpersonal relationships or simply a greater tendency to see divorce as a viable option when marital difficulties arise. It is possible that divorce shapes children's attitudes and expectations about close relationships, which in turn influence their behavior in these relationships.

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3