Divorce is seen by both parents and children who have experienced it as one of the single most stressful life events they have endured (Stadelmann et al. 2010). While it is well-documented that divorce has an impact on the development of children of all ages, it is difficult to associate specific effects with divorce because of the high number of correlative factors involved in the event of divorce. This paper looks at four particular factors associated with divorce -- parental stress, parental separation, socioeconomic upheaval, and remarriage -- and traces the effects that these individual stressors have on different stages of child development. It finds that all three factors impact children of all ages, though children of younger ages tend to experience more profound behavioral effects, while older children tend to experience more profound psychological effects. Parental stress, parental separation, and socioeconomic upheaval general have an adverse influence on all stages of development, while remarriage tends to have an ameliorating effect on younger children (though it tends to effect adolescents adversely).
Many Pebbles, Many Ripples:
Impacts of Divorce on Early Childhood Development
It is well-known that divorce rates in the United States skyrocketed in the last half of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1980, the divorce rate among married women more than doubled, though it has since leveled off and even declined somewhat (Hughes 2010). This rapidly changing dynamic among American families has had a profound effect on the children of these relationships. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have found that the parental separation and divorce can have long-term impacts on children of all ages, from infants to adolescents. Even amicable divorces can damage a child's view of self, family, and the world -- a difficult divorce can do much worse. Understanding the way that divorce changes children at different stages of development can help parents and counselors guide these children towards healthy views of themselves and others when they reach adulthood.
It is not an easy task to isolate the effect of divorce in particular on a child, since divorce often happens in an environment that is already unstable and affecting the child's development. As Janette Benson (2009) points out, "Given that children often experience multiple risks and stressors, focusing on an isolated risk factor does not create an accurate picture of children and their contexts." It may be more effective, then, to not simply look at divorce as a single event in the child's life, but to look at divorce as a collection of risks and stressors imposed on a child's development.
One component of this collection, and most likely the earliest to have an impact on a child's development, is the emotional stress of the parents. This stress can be traced to any number of causes, both external (finances, social issues) and internal (depression, breakdown of the marital relationship). Whatever the cause, this stress can have a direct effect on parental engagement, participation, emotional availability, and patience with their children. This effect generally manifests itself in one of two ways: the parent either becomes less attentive and more permissive of the child's behavior, or he or she becomes more controlling and authoritarian as control within the marriage breaks down (Benson 2009).
Parental stress has been proven to have a strong impact in the development of even the youngest children. Infants, for instance, rely strongly on the consistency of parental interaction to develop trust in their external environments (Peck 1989). When parents are distracted by their own stresses, this consistency can be disrupted, leading to anxiety and stress within the infant. This can lead to a vicious circle, as stressed infants tend to exhibit behavior like excessive crying which can in turn add to the environment of parental stress.
The impact of parental stress on preschoolers is more pronounced and measurable than the effect on infants, primarily because preschoolers are better able to articulate themselves and have more conscious control over their behaviors. Children of parents who are experience marriage-related stress. Peck (1989) posits that, because children at this age are just beginning to "see themselves as a 'cause' capable of having an 'effect' on the world around them," they may mistakenly attribute their parents' stress to themselves, engendering confusion and guilt that can last well into adulthood and leading to regressive and sometimes aggressive behaviors.
Elementary school-aged children seem to be most susceptible to adverse reactions from parental stress. School-aged children have a developing but incomplete understanding of the family dynamic and are still prone to a largely self-centered worldview. As a result, they tend, like preschoolers, to see themselves as the cause of parental stress. In addition, parental stress has been shown to have an impact on the physical health of children at this age. A 2007 University of Rochester study found that children whose parents are subject to ongoing stress tend to have more fevers and illnesses than other children. The researchers found that killer cell function in 5 to 10-year-olds increased relative to levels of parental stress, and that this increased immune response led to more frequent fevers and illnesses (Nauert 2007).
While parental stress is one of the earliest and most consistent divorce-related influences on child development, there are several other factors to consider as well. One of the most profound changes that divorce brings to a child's world is the separation of the parents and the restructuring of the family unit. In fact, it has been rated the one of the single most stressful life events for both parents and children (Stadelmann et al., 2010). Parental separation has been shown to have a deep and long-lasting effect on a child's ability to form attachments and relationship as he or she grows. Woodward et al. (2000) found that "the younger children are at the time of first separation, the worse their attachment and relationship perceptions are at ages 15 and 16, with these associations being similar for both males and females." In particular, it was found that, compared to adolescents who had not experienced parental separation, adolescents who had experienced parental separation at a younger age: 1) remembered their parents as less caring and more restrictive during their childhoods; 2) had a lower estimation of their parents' concern for them; and 3) had a more negative view of the quality of parent-child relationships.
Though the event of parental separation may have long-term psychological effects for children, it often has immediate behavioral effects. While these effects are often negative, including disruptive, aggressive, or antisocial behavior, sometimes the effects can actually be positive. For instance, if the separation removes the child from an abusive, chaotic environment and places him or her into a more stable and harmonious environment, that child may show fewer or more mild behavioral problems than he or she exhibited before the separation (Stadelmann et al. 2010).
The extent of behavioral problems and long-term developmental problems as a result of parental separation appear to be more profound among boys than girls. Some theorists believe that this may be the result not of natural coping differences between males and females, but of the likelihood of parental separation reducing the availability of the father in the family dynamic. Several studies have confirmed that a lack of consistent access to a caring male figure for school-aged and adolescent boys can lead to higher anxiety, depression, and social avoidance when they become adults (DeFranc & Mahalik 2002).
Another deeply influential aspect of divorce on the development of children is the socioeconomic upheaval that often accompanies the aftermath of separation. Divorce often has a negative impact on the finances of both parents, and any financial stress experienced by the custodial parent is likely to affect the child in many ways. A 1982 study found that "the loss of income associated with divorce was the major determinant of adjustment problems among children whose parents had divorced" (Twaite et al. ____). Post-divorce economic adversity is linked to social disadvantage, maternal depression, and parental stress -- all likely to negatively impact child-parent relationships at all ages (Stadelmann et al. 2010).
In addition, divorce is associated with an increase in residential mobility, often not for the better (Wolfinger 2005). Children may find themselves in an unfamiliar area, lacking the social supports they were accustomed to, and perhaps in a worse neighborhood economically. This circumstance may breed resentment for one or both of the parents, as the child has safer, more stable, less stressful memories of life before the divorce (Ibid.) This is especially the case for adolescents. At this age, Wolfinger (2005) suggests, "one's social network lies close to the parental home…These networks may still be in flux [after the divorce], allowing parental divorce to lay the groundwork for teenage pathology."
While in general the experience of parental divorce tends to have detrimental effects on the behavioral and psychological development of children, it does open the door…