Divorce, remarriage can have drastic outcome on development
This is the fifth in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.
Q: What are additional effects of family structure and change on children?
A: Continuing the discussion of the causative links between parent separation and poor child outcomes, there is yet more information provided by the Ministry of Social Development New Zealand publication. Although shared residential custody is becoming more common, research on the post-divorce outcomes for children still center on father absences with mother residential custody.
A single-parent female home provides less available time for parenting. It also lacks the adult role of a male. Also missing with the father absence is an opportunity for children to learn skills in communication, compromise, negotiation and expressing intimacy. However, those skills assume a good marital relationship, when the truth of the matter is many intact marriages do not model these skills.
Father absence from the family home can mean a loss of effective contact with the children. However, research does not support the hypothesis that father absence is a significant factor in negative children outcomes following divorce. Controlled studies between groups of children who have lost fathers from death and those whose fathers were divorced showed no difference. Economic factors were more significant than absent fathers.
Another research result that does not support the causative significance of father absence is remarriage does not improve the well-being of children. The positive influence of a second parent is nullified by the complexities of a step-family. Remarriage also might not improve finances because of the financial commitments from prior relationships.
A father absence can be countered with other significant adult male role models such as relatives, coaches and teachers. If the father maintains an active role in the child's life, even though he is not living in the home, that presence contributes to a child's well-being.
A third factor in family change is the mother's mental health. The process of divorce seriously can impair the quality of maternal parenting. Maternal mental health problems are more problematic than problems of fathers. The common symptoms in divorcing mothers are depression, anxiety, anger and lack of self-confidence. These problems then cause less affection, less communication and less consistent discipline between mothers and children.
If custodial mothers are healthy enough to maintain good parenting relationships with their children, that circumstance will buffer the negative effects of divorce. Of course, there is variation because of the different temperaments and coping skills of both mothers and children.
The fourth factor that connects with parental separation and child outcomes is the most complex. Inter-parental high conflicts are present in approximately half of divorcing couples as compared to their presence in 25 percent of couples who remain married. Research has found, in addition, 75 percent of those couples who experience high conflict choose to stay married. Such a result shows the avenue of divorce is not available to the majority of children of high-conflict parents, at least at the time of the research.
The link between high conflict and parental separation might exist before, during and after divorce. Studies have shown continuing high conflict in intact families is as harmful as that following parental separation. Behavioral studies of children living in high-conflict parental homes revealed more behavioral problems than children living in high conflict homes with one biological parent.
An interesting finding in studying high conflict families is children from high-conflict homes generally are better off after parent separation, provided the separation decreases the conflict. But children from low-conflict families are not as well off after parents separate. These children might view divorce as unwelcome, unexpected and negative.
Conflict that is intense and involves the children post-divorce is damaging to the children. The greater the conflict, the more harm. Children younger than 7 are vulnerable to post-divorce high conflict. Children have symptoms similar to other children in treatment for emotional and behavioral disorders.
Studies show separation or divorce disrupts parenting practices. With boys, fathers who stay involved significantly reduce their son's delinquent behavior. Parental role models, as well as parental supervision, are the main influences that determine the behavior of children in their future families. Poor family relationships either can precede divorce and contribute to that separation or develop after divorce as an effect of the process.
A summary of the differences in well-being between children whose parents separate or divorce and those who remain together shows children of intact families fare better, but not by much. Most children do not show adverse effects of parent separation.
Many factors affect children after parent separations: declines in living standards, the mental health of custodial mothers, inter-partner conflicts and poor parenting practices. Some poor child outcomes after divorce might relate to genetic inheritance, problems parents brought into the marriage, and conflicts that existed long before parents separate.
The key to positive children outcomes lies with the presence or absence of post-divorce high conflict, whether it was there before divorce or not. Without a doubt, high post-divorce conflicts that put children in the middle and are bitter, hateful and vindictive, are the greatest threats to the well-being of children in parental separation. A high level of parental cooperation is the most effective way to counter the adverse effects on children from parental separation.
* Next week's article will discuss modern trends in the stages of divorce.
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.