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Divorce can have dramatic effect on children

This is the ninth in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What is the effect of divorce on children?

A: The following information about children and divorce is from a chapter in a book titled "Changing Family Life Cycle," written by Judith Stern Peck, M.S.W., and Jennifer R. Manocherian, M.S. Even though divorce is considered a solution to the problems of the parents, few children want divorce -- no matter how bad things were in the family.

Children are faced with two homes, divided loyalties, less time with extended family, absence of the father from the home with residential custody most often with the mother, and the cumulative effect of various psychosocial and environmental forces. Research results about the effect of divorce on children vary a great deal among children in the same family, children in different families, children in divorced, non-remarried families and children in single-parent families.

The consensus of opinion is the problem is not the divorce per se but specific stressors stemming from parental separation. Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) in their research named loss of a parent, continuing conflict between the parents, the quality of the post-divorce life, and various other losses -- such as changing schools, moving, leaving friends and living at or below poverty -- as significant stresses for children of divorce.

Age and gender are two variables to examine. Young children who do not remember their early years have the best outcomes after divorce. Older children who remember the family before divorce often consider parental divorce the main event of their childhood. Young adult children, according to the most recent research, experience loyalty conflicts when parents divorce and the majority are angry with their fathers, regardless of who filed for divorce.

Many research studies document divorce is harder on boys than girls, without any explanation. Researchers speculate the father is the one who usually leaves the household, a fact which might account for the greater effect on boys. Another proposal suggests since boys are more vulnerable to stress than girls, moving back and forth between parents is harder on boys.

The most critical stress post-divorce is parental conflict, which also is the most destructive influence on children in intact families. However, after parents divorce, it becomes even more problematic because of the existence of so many other stressors. One researcher (Leupritz 1982) examined families not in treatment or services and found ongoing parental conflict was the sole predictor of poor adjustment post-divorce.

The domino effect in the number and degree of changes for children after divorce affects their adaptability. For example, father absence lowers economic well-being, which, in turn, triggers moving to poor neighborhoods, exposure to criminal elements and attending poorer schools, among other disadvantages.

Regarding father contact after divorce, 50 percent of fathers had no direct contact with children one year after divorce. At six years post-divorce, less than 25 percent of fathers saw their children more than monthly. Contact is less likely if children are girls or if fathers are remarried. Most children in divorce want more contact than every other weekend. With current statistics about working women, both parents equally are available for parenting.

Research does not report a clear-cut picture of which custody arrangement is best because there are too many variables in each situation. Joint custody is what is best for children provided there is not ongoing conflict between the parents. Continuing conflict with joint residence exposes children to more parental contact and thus to more conflict. The important reality is children need quality relationships with both parents, and the particular type of custody arrangement is not as significant as parental cooperation.

A family is most at risk in the early phase of marriage when there are young children. The addition of children changes family roles, shifts responsibilities and adds to the stress of both parents. Infants and toddlers suffer distress in divorce if parents become emotionally unavailable and inconsistent in meeting their needs. Losing a parent who is an active caretaker threatens the security of the small child.

Preschool children are developing the beginning of morality but still are struggling with fantasy versus reality. Thus, preschoolers are vulnerable to confusion and guilt. Regression in this age is common with traumatic events. Preschoolers might exhibit separation anxiety, bed wetting, sleep disturbances, fear of leaving main caregivers and aggressive fantasies. Divorce in these years can interfere with the development of normal sexual identity. These children might act out sexually in adolescence.

For single mothers of preschoolers, there are economic hardships and stress from the compromised economic situations with the children. Full-time working mothers have two full-time jobs, economic hardships and social isolation due to the pressure of time. Extended family and friends generally support single mothers. By two years, matters have improved. Lives are more stable, visitation is established, support is settled and a new person often is added, such as a significant other, family member, babysitter or housekeeper.

Men have different issues with their children in divorce when they become noncustodial parents. They have to establish new homes. Most men have left most of the childcare to women. Feeling lost, they might withdraw gradually from their ex-spouses and children. There is a tendency for boundaries to reformat around mothers and children. Men are excluded, or they exclude themselves. Fathers might withdraw because of emotional pain. Fathers need to work at keeping close to the children, and mothers need to work hard to include fathers. Successful co-parenting benefits the ex-spouses and the children.

* The next article continues a discussion on the effect of divorce on children.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.