Divorce has some surprising effects on children’s behavior, report researchers at the University of Montreal, Canada. Linda Pagani, Bernard Boulerice, Richard Tremblay and Frank Vitaro followed students throughout elementary school to compare the behavioral development of children from intact families with that of children who experienced their parents’ divorce and remarriage.
Using data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study, they examined teachers’ assessments of children’s behavior at ages 6, 8, 10 and 12. A total of 1,316 students were selected for this study. Five factors from the Social Behavior Questionnaire (SBQ) were studied:
1. Anxious Behavior
2. Physically Aggressive Behavior
3. Oppositional Behavior (defiant, contentious)
4. Prosocial Behavior (friendly, good social skills)
Child development research shows that the amount of fighting, hyperactivity and oppositional behavior a child exhibits remains fairly stable between ages 6 and 12. Children’s anxious and prosocial behavior, however, is more variable. Behavioral assessment during kindergarten is a good predictor of social adjustment in later childhood and adolescence. In this study, children’s behavior was examined both before divorce (because it is often preceded by parental conflict) and after divorce. The researchers found no differences in behavior between children of intact families and children in families on the verge of divorce.
Behavioral changes after divorce
Pagani et al. analyzed the effects of divorce on children’s behavioral development and the effect of remarriage on behavior. Overall, children who experienced divorce early showed more and longer-lasting negative consequences than children who experienced divorce in the late elementary years.
Boys, especially those born to younger mothers, demonstrated more aggressive, uncontrolled behavior than girls. Divorce before age 8 increased the frequency of physical aggression in school, but this was temporary and did not last beyond the immediate post-divorce period. In general, aggressive behavior decreases with age. Oppositional behavior, however, tends to persist, especially if divorce occurred at an early age. Remarriage had no effect on these behaviors.
The impact of divorce on anxiety was clear. Children who experience divorce are more anxious and become increasingly so over time.
More hyperactive behavior was seen in children of divorced parents, with boys exhibiting more hyperactive behavior than girls. When divorce occurred before 8 years of age, the level of hyperactivity was greater and tended to persist into adolescence. However, hyperactive behavior decreased significantly after remarriage. When parents didn’t remarry, children continued to exhibit more hyperactive behavior throughout the elementary years.
Prosocial behavior was not significantly affected by divorce or remarriage. In general, girls and children born to older mothers exhibited more prosocial behavior, whether they came from intact or divorced families.
Fewer negative effects than expected
As expected, children from families that never divorced showed the least disturbance in their behavioral development. Even so, parental divorce did not have the generalized negative impact on children’s behavioral development that these researchers anticipated. Although there was evidence of long-term direct effects of divorce on children’s adjustment, the effects of divorce depended on the age of the child and the type of behavior studied. The effects were particularly negative and long-lasting when divorce occurred before the child was 6 years old. These researchers point out, however, that parents who divorce when their children are very young, and who remain unmarried throughout their children’s elementary years, may be intrinsically different from parents who divorce later or who remarry.
Pagani et al. are continuing to follow these youngsters’ development through adolescence.
“Behavioral Development in Children of Divorce and Remarriage” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume 38, Number 7, pp. 769-781.
Published in ERN March 1998 Volume 11 Number 3