Effects of divorce on children

A decade of clinical observations demonstrate that elementary age children of divorced parents are at significantly greater risk for adjustment problems, poor skill development and lower academic achievement than children whose families are intact.*

So consistent are these findings that they apply even among groups of children in which I.Q. and socioeconomic status have been controlled. Clinical experience confirms that children of divorced parents exhibit a higher than average incidence of aggressive behavior, are less socially competent and exhibit lower self-esteem than their peers. Additionally, they reveal that the negative effects of divorce may linger for years.

Girls adjust better than boys

In general, young girls appear to adjust to a divorce better than boys. Where boys tend to exhibit unacceptable behavior as a result of their anger and anxiety, girls more typically appear to contain their feelings. This disparity, however, may be due, at least in part, to the fact that 90% of these children are in the custody of their mothers. As a result, girls have the advantage of a clearer identity figure.

Children also appear to react differently to divorce according to their age. Seven or eight-year-olds tend to reflect sadness or grief, whereas nine and ten-year-olds show anger, embarrassment and loneliness. Teenagers (twelve to fifteen-year-olds) frequently experience depression. Some recent studies suggest that having children complete self-reporting questionnaires may be useful in assessing anxiety and depression in young children.

In comparing children from divorced parents to those from intact families, researchers Lynne A. Hoyt, Emory L. Cowen, JoAnne L. Pedro-Carroll and Linda J. Alpert-Gillis at the University of Rochester, chose demographically matched 2nd and 3rd graders. These children, along with their parents and teachers, were asked to respond to questionnaires which described behaviors and feelings that have been linked in previous clinical studies to anxiety and depression.

Intervention needed

Confirming the results of clinical observations, the responses to the questionnaires in this study show that children of divorce experience more anxiety and depression, as well as greater learning and school adjustment problems, than children from intact families. It is surmised that anxiety or sadness cause these children to have difficulty concentrating on academic tasks. Hoyt et al. believe that the results of their study underscore the need for preventive intervention with these children. Such intervention can help children of divorce develop skills which lessen the adverse social and academic side effects apparent in many children of divorced parents.

One such intervention program (Children of Divorce Intervention Program) currently used in the Rochester schools, provides on-going support for children suffering the effects of divorce. Essentially, this program teaches adaptive problem-solving, communication and anger-control skills while building self-esteem. Although such programs are not available in many schools, teachers can still play a crucial role by being alert for signs of anxiety or depression, and by referring families to intervention programs in their communities. By establishing a close personal relationship with a child of divorce, teachers can help that child maintain the motivation to do well in school.

Limitations: These findings should be considered preliminary because of the relatively small number of children studied (49 from divorced parents, 83 from intact families). Also, because the sample was essentially homogenous (predominantly white, middle class, suburban children near Rochester, NY), the results may be specific to this type of population and may not apply to others. Additionally, the questionnaires used in this study were adapted from previously tested measures and the new forms have not been analyzed extensively at this time.

*Clinicians report, however, that children from intact families in which there is a great deal of parental discord may be at even greater risk for maladjustment.

“Anxiety and Depression in Young Children of Divorce” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 1990, Volume 19, No. 1., p. 26-32.

Published in ERN September/October 1990 Volume 3 Number 4

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