How to Facilitate Child Resiliency During Divorce

Mallory Becker, M.A., R.Psyc.

Mallory Becker

Registered Psychologist


How to Facilitate Child Resiliency During Divorce: Important Information Research Tells Parents When Separating


Consequences of Divorce for School-Aged Children

Divorce consequences experienced by children have been studied comprehensively for years.  Children have been the focus of most divorce-related literature as children are often not the principal factor involved in parental divorce motives and rarely have any opinion in their parent’s decision to divorce (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  The general literature consensus is that child adjustment is difficult proceeding divorce although many factors are involved in facilitating or hindering child adjustment (Kushner, 2009).  Determining whether differences in children with non-divorced and divorced families are due to marital disruption or other factors such as genetic influence, personality characteristics of parents, or pre-divorce marital discord is difficult to differentiate (Amato, 2000). 

Some children appear to adjust quickly to the divorce of their parents while others children have long-term functioning deficits (Amato, 2000).  The sense of loss experienced by children may be heightened during birthdays, holidays, and special school events as the entire family is often longer together (Cohen, 2002).  Although the negative consequences of divorce on children are diminishing over time, Amato and Keith (1991) found a lower quality of well-being in children experiencing parental divorce in comparison to children with non-divorced parents likely due to changes in parent-child relationships, economic hardship, continuing parental conflict, less available emotional support, and the increase of additional negative challenges such as switching schools and moving.  In comparison to children with married parents, a 92 participant meta-analysis found children with divorced parents have noticeably lower outcome scores in psychological adjustment, academic achievement, conduct, social competence, self-concept and more problem behaviours (Amato & Keith, 1991).  Some pre-divorce factors such as genetics or parental problems potentially predispose children to particular behavioural and emotional problems however; divorce often intensifies these issues (Amato, 2000).  Recent research has also discovered many child adjustment problems are partly explained by the experiences within marriages that result in divorce (Amato, 2000).

Gender and Age

Currently, there is conflicting evidence whether gender and age differences exist regarding post-divorce problems.  Some studies have found stronger effects for males than females while other studies find no differences in divorce coping between male and female children (Amato, 2000).  Typically, studies suggesting boys have more difficulties after parental divorce are not very recent and have simple, less sophisticated experimental designs in comparison to recent research (Kushner, 2009).   The meta-analysis by Amato and Keith (1991) suggests negative consequences are not always more pronounced in boys.  Also, it is not clear at what age children are most negatively affected by parental divorce (Kushner, 2009)

Academic Achievement

            Several studies have consistently found divorce increases children’s risk of experiencing academic problems (Kushner, 2009).  However, it is important to question whether it is the family disruption or factors related to divorce affecting academic success of children with divorced parents.  Post-divorce poverty is a factor involved in academic achievement decline (Pong & Ju, 2000).  High intensity pre-divorce marital conflict is also a factor implicated in declining academic achievement (Furstenberg and Teitler, 1994).  Fortunately, educational success is enhanced when the father is attentive to their child’s academic activities (Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997).  The Amato and Keith (1991) meta-analysis involving over 13 000 children confirmed on average, children with divorced parents experience more academic problems than children raised in married families. 

Financial Issues

            After a divorce, a standard of living decline often occurs (Kushner, 2009).  Decreased access to resources and increased economic instability often lead to reduced opportunities potentially enhancing child development, such as extracurricular activities (Kushner, 2009).  Almost half of children’s adjustment problems in divorced households are accounted by economic problems (McLanahan, 1999, as cited in Kushner, 2009).  Reduced post-divorce household incomes often force custodial parents to live in poorer neighborhoods (Amato, 2000).  Pong and Ju (2000) found children living in poverty regardless of parent relationship status, are equally at risk for dropping out of school although single-mother raised families have a higher probability of living in poverty.    Furthermore, economic hardship proceeding parental divorce may pressure some children to cancel college plans therefore, resulting in lower wages and occupational attainment as an adult (Amato, 2000).

Parental Mental Health Problems

Children are more prone to emotional, social, and academic difficulties when their mother has a personality or psychiatric disorder after divorce (Johnston, 1995, as cited in Kushner, 2009).  If children experience depressed, hostile, erratic parenting, efforts from nonresidential parents have little effect (Kushner, 2009).  Children impacted by divorce and parental depression are at higher risk for poor physical health, poor social functioning, academic performance deficits not attributable to intellectual limitations, disruptive behavior problems such as conduct disorder, anxiety disorders, and phobias (Taylor & Andrews, 2009).  Children with depressed parents are also high risk for depression and should be frequently monitored (Taylor & Andrews, 2009). 

Parent Custody and Access

Positive relationships, education, regular child support payment, and economic stability enhance child adjustment while facilitating successful shared parenting arrangements (Johnston, 1995, as cited in Kushner, 2009).  Spruijt & Duindam (2010) and Amato (2000) suggest typically, joint custody is the most beneficial custody arrangement for children, mothers, and especially fathers however, custody must be granted on a case-by-case basis while carefully evaluating all related factors.  Spruijt & Duindam (2010) also suggest same-sex parenting is no more successful than opposite-sex parenting. 

Father involvement and the related adjustment impacts of the child post-divorce is linked to conflict intensity, maternal acceptance, parental involvement, and regular child support payments (Kushner, 2009).  In high-conflict custodial homes, frequent contact with the access father may amplify volatility (Kushner, 2009).  Male children generally want additional time with their fathers than typically allowed by the courts and overall, wish for equal time with each parent (Fabricus & Hall, 2000).  Fabricus and Hall (2000) found many living arrangements give little time for children to spend with their fathers.  Fathers frequently want additional time with their children although mothers typically do not want their children to spend more time with the father (Hall, 2000).  Non-residential mothers that frequently visit their children and continue to be involved in parental functions are less likely to terminate child contact (Depner, 1993, as cited in Krushner, 2009).  It is important to note as physical child-parent contact decreases, the parent-child bond diminishes (Spruijt & Duindam, 2010).

In a survey of 260 divorced fathers, Hawthorne & Lennings (2008) found most fathers have little influence or input on children’s post-divorce living arrangements, child support payment amount, and how their child support payments are spend.  Many of these fathers also claimed a lack participation in children’s schools and have little parenting decision influence (Hawthorne & Lennings, 2008).  Hawthorne & Lennings (2008) found as the father’s parental role decreases, ongoing involvement and contact with children subsequently decreases while inter-parental hostility increases.  Fathers who perceived their parent role as marginalized felt their ability develop meaningful father-child relationships was impeded (Hawthorne & Lennings, 2008).

Family Dynamics

Divorcing families experience many difficulties related to family dynamics before, during, and after the divorce.  The most important factor in child adjustment is home conflict level and it is critical for custody evaluators to facilitate alleviation of parental conflict (Buchanan & Jahromi, 2008; Johnston, 1995, as cited in Kushner, 2009).  Children whose parents who do not involve children in their conflict have the same adjustment as children in families with low conflict (Buchanan & Jahromi, 2008).  Excessive conflict tendencies are also correlated with internalizing and externalizing child behavioral issues (Buehler, Krisnakumar, & Stone, 1998).  Children who place blame onto themselves typically have poorer adjustment (Bussell, 1995, as cited in Amato, 2000).    Children are more likely to demonstrate internalized symptoms such as depression if parents utilize passive-aggressive behavior and triangulation conflict styles (Buehler, Krisnakumar, & Stone, 1998).  Marital conflict focusing on children is more likely to result in future child adjustment difficulties in comparison to marital conflict not focused on children (Grych & Finchman, 1993). Divorced custodial parents also tend to invest less time, have fewer rules, are less supportive, discipline more harshly, engage in increased conflict with their children, and offer less supervision in comparison to parents that are married (Astone & McLanahan, 1991). 

Noller, Feeney, Sheehan, Darlington, and Rogers (2008) found more conflict in divorcing families in comparison to married families in couple, sibling, and parent-child relationships.  Typically, conflicts between parents focus on financial issues before and after divorce (Noller et al., 2008).  Most post-divorce arguments between parents occur via phone with children often witnessing while viewing arguments to be trivial and stupid (Noller et al., 2008).  Inter-parental conflict is also linked to decreased non-custodial parent overnight stays increased child alienation (Altenhofen, Biringen, & Mergler, 2008).  Ultimately, a child’s future is best served when parents are coexisting in harmony (Lowenstein, 2010).

Changes in relationship and roles, and other changes related to divorce such as moving and visitation are also difficult factors that increase parental stress (Noller et al., 2008).  In particular, parent-adolescent arguments occur more frequently in divorced families in comparison to families with married parents (Noller et al., 2008).  Divorced mothers are more likely to apply parental authority less often than mothers who are married (Lazer, Guttmann, & Abas, 2009).  Mother-child relations are also affected by divorce as mother-son hostility amplifies more than mother-daughter hostility (Krushner, 2009).  In a longitudinal study, Beelmann & Schmidt-Denter (2009) found increased signs of mother strain during early divorce phases and noticeably altered family interactions in comparison to non-divorced families.  This mother-child family dynamic change after divorce is likely due to mothers feeling overwhelmed by the increased strains and demands (Beelmann & Schmidt-Denter, 2009; Lazer et al., 2009).  The most difficult adjustment factor contributing to stress for mothers after divorce is work-family balance (Altenhofen, et al., 2008).  Overall, children require support, comfort, and attention from their mothers and mothers who are overly authoritarian may leave their children feeling psychologically abandoned (Lazer, et al., 2008).

Father-child relations often face challenges especially if the father does not have primary or joint custody of the children.  Non-custodial fathers have a difficult and confusing challenge of establishing a new father role without daily involvement and limited opportunities for involvement (Bokker, 2006).  Divorced fathers without custody have lower levels of emotional well-being in comparison to divorced fathers with joint or full custody (Bokker, 2006).  It is critical for non-custodial fathers to recognize even though they may have lost being a full-time dad, their new nonresidential father role is important and vital (Bokker, 2006).  Father-child attachment is equally as important as mother-child attachment while leading to positive behavioral and emotional development (Lowenstein, 2010).  The most importance factor implicated in the non-custodial father-child relationship is that the father takes responsibility for their relationship (Bokker, 2006). 

Increased sibling conflict in divorcing families is also a concern as the style of conflict resolution is also more negative than in families with married parents (Noller et al., 2008).  Verbal coercion and aggression often exist in sibling conflict for children with divorced parents and this attacking style of conflict resolution is often observed in divorced parent conflicts (Noller et al., 2008).  High-conflict divorcing families also have the highest level of conflict in couple, sibling, and parent-child relationships as children display more maladjustment, experience less positive divorce resolution and appear to have diminished coping abilities (Noller et al., 2008; Bing, Nelson & Wesolowski, 2009).

Self-Determination

Self-determination theory suggests competence, autonomy, and relatedness contributing to child well-being (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  Parenting factors are closely related to these factors and divorce may cause significant transformation in self-determination factors.  Children experiencing parental divorce may feel a lack of autonomy due to their perception of having no choice regarding family changes (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  Disruption of family structure often includes new child expectation of responsibilities and behavior, daily routine changes, and differences in household discipline styles or rules (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  The decreased family structure and powerless feelings may lead to perceptions of diminished competences and control of outcomes (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  A child’s needs for relatedness may be affected by the residential and nonresidential parent activities (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  Increased custodial parent stress may affect active participation in the life of their child leading to the child feeling less related to parents after divorce (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  Furthermore, nonresidential parent relatedness is affected by physical and inter-parental factors as the custodial parent often exhibits gate-keeping behavior (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).  Unfortunately, parental conflict often determines how much access the noncustodial parent has with the child (Friendly & Grolnick, 2009).

Resiliency Factors

            Fortunately, children do not typically suffer irreversible harm following parental divorce (Kushner, 2000).  In a longitudinal study, Ahron (2004, as cited in Krushner, 2009) found most adult children of divorce became stronger and wiser.  Ahron (2004, as cited in Krushner, 2009) also found most offspring of divorced parents experienced positive outcomes in life.  Furthermore, over half of adults who experienced childhood parental divorce reported improved father-child relationships following the divorce and many of these individuals also experienced a connection to their blended families (Ahron, 2004, as cited in Krushner, 2009).  In general, children enduring high-conflict in parental marriages receive the most benefits from divorce (Krushner, 2009).

Protective factors facilitating resiliency for children experiencing parental divorce include involvement of the non-residential parent including financial support, reduced conflict succeeding divorce, and living with the most psychologically competent parent.  Supportive and warm parenting, authoritative discipline, adequate monitoring, and age-appreciative expectations also support resiliency (Krushner, 2009).  Joint custody also positively influences child adjustment when parental conflict is low (Krushner, 2009).  Amato (2000) found additional resiliency factors including utilizing family and social support, coping skills, and having access to therapeutic interventions.

Therapeutic Interventions

From the introduction of parental conflict, through divorce, and for years post-divorce, children and parents often endure emotional trauma (Cohen, 2002).  Age- suitable explanations and counselling are critical to help children recognize that they did not cause and cannot cure their parent’s divorce (Cohen, 2002).  Unfortunately, there is a lack of interplay between children’s post divorce adaptability research and interventions, as many interventions appear beneficial but lack empirical efficacy documentation (Grych & Fincham, 1992).  Significant practical limitations may hinder optimal therapeutic progress for children experiencing parental divorce such as lack of education from referral sources, lack of inclusion of both parents, triangulation, difficulty establishing treatment contracts, and factors affecting treatment duration and termination such as moving (Garber, 1994). 

Counselling interventions for children experiencing divorce are available individually or in a group setting.  Child-centered therapeutic interventions that help alleviate misconceptions, negative feelings, and common post-divorce challenges appear to be the most effective (Grych & Fincham, 1992).  Group settings are preferred over individual counselling because most schools and social service agencies do not have the resources to individually counsel every child and the group setting can normalize the experience and provide a supportive environment when discussing divorce with peers (Grych & Fincham, 1992).  Furthermore, it may be more comfortable for children to discuss sensitive issues with peers with similar experiences in comparison to discussing these issues in individual therapy with an adult counsellor (Grych & Fincham, 1992).  Overall, the type of counselling a child receives needs to be determined based on individual factors, severity of adjustment, ability to exist in a group, and program accessibility. 

Farmer and Galaris (1993) and Pedro-Caroll and Cowen (1985) suggest that community support can facilitate the child’s divorce adjustment by improving the child’s acceptance and understanding of divorce through quality discussions and interactions. School-based support groups also build competence by teaching communication, anger management, and problem solving skills to facilitate the ability of the child to cope with parental divorce related challenges (Pedro-Caroll & Cowen, 1985).  In a demographically controlled study, Pedro-Caroll and Cowen (1985) found children receiving group therapy significantly improved on teacher ratings of competence such as compliance, frustration tolerance, sociability, and functional assertiveness.  Children in group therapy also have fewer teacher reported problem behaviors, less self-reported anxiety, and improved parent ratings of adjustment (Pedro-Caroll and Cowen, 1985).  Pedro-Caroll and Cowen (1985) strongly suggest that personal problem-solving strategies such as anger control skills and communication skills are equally as important in group therapy for children experiencing parental divorce as the supportive environment.  Stolberg and Mahler (1994) also found significant home behavior improvements in children that participated in skill-building group therapy however; children with significant problems experienced the greatest clinical symptom reductions in the support-alone condition. 

 

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