Families that eventually divorce may be different in a variety of ways from those that do not long before marital disruption occurs. They may be more likely to exhibit poor parenting practices, high levels of marital conflict, or suffer from persistent economic stress Sun found that, compared with parents that remain continuously married, parents who later divorce are more likely to have personal, sexual, psychological or financial problems throughout their marriage, and these problems continue to affect children negatively.
Given the persistence of these problems, a separation may actually reduce the stress associated with such problems, resulting in relatively little further damage to child wellbeing. Emery et al. In fact, delinquent behaviour reported when future mothers were single, childless adolescents prospectively predicted behaviour problems among their offspring 14 years later. Parental separation does not occur randomly, and the causes that underlie it may also be part of the explanation for the apparent impacts on children.
One means by which selection effects might arise is via genetic transmission of characteristics and behaviours between parents and children. Studies of the impact of parental separation on children in adopted and biological families provide a window on this issue, since parents and children in biological families share both genes and environment, while parents and children in adoptive families share their environment but not their genes.
They found that, while biological and adopted children who had experienced a parental divorce displayed similarly elevated rates of behavioural problems and substance use compared with their peers in intact families, a different pattern was found for academic and social competence outcomes. While children from biological families also had lower levels of academic achievement and social competence than their peers in intact families, there were no differences between adopted children in divorced and intact families. These results show that if genetic mechanisms are involved they have differential effects in different spheres of development.
While genetic risk was uncorrelated with the adjustment of adopted children in intact families, among children who had experienced a parental divorce there were substantial and significant associations between genetic risk and poor adjustment.
Residential Child Care : International Perspectives on Links with Families and Peers
It appears, then, that genetic factors do play a role in the association between parental separation and child outcomes, although their impact varies across different outcome domains and interacts with environmental triggers. While consideration of this question is beyond the scope of the present paper, it will be useful to sketch out the promising results that have been achieved through one particular intervention, which indicates that there is indeed scope for effective action.
The exemplar intervention I have chosen to highlight is the New Beginnings Program in the United States, an intervention for custodial mothers following a separation, which was subject to a true experimental trial Wolchik et al. The programme involved randomised assignment to one of two treatment conditions a mother-only programme, involving 11 group sessions with other custodial mothers, plus two structured individual sessions and a dual component mother-plus-child programme, which also included 11 group sessions for the children or a control condition.
Participants who were assigned to the control condition were issued with books on adjustment to divorce. The sample was randomly drawn from divorce court records. Children in the study were followed up six years after the intervention. Wolchik et al. In particular, they exhibited reduced rates of mental disorders, reduced levels of externalising problems, reduced rates of substance abuse and reduced numbers of sexual partners. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this brief survey of the literature on parental separation and child outcomes.
First, there is an abundance of evidence that children who experience a parental separation are, on average, worse off than their peers in intact families, on a number of measures of wellbeing.
However, the scale of the differences in wellbeing between the two groups of children is not large and most children are not adversely affected. Parental separation then bears down most heavily on a minority of children, generally in the presence of other exacerbating factors. Underlying these effects are multiple mechanisms: income declines following separation, declines in the mental health of custodial mothers, interparental conflict and compromised parenting.
These mechanisms do not operate independently, but are related in complex ways. This in turn can lead to compromised parenting behaviours. All of these factors can impact adversely on child wellbeing. Part of the effects also arise from non-causal mechanisms: that is to say, not all of the adverse child outcomes following separation can be laid at the door of the separation itself.
Many of the difficulties have deeper roots that date from many years prior to the separation and are due to the fact that some parents bring into a marriage characteristics and behaviours — such as poor mental health, antisocial behaviour or substance addictions — that are likely both to jeopardise the success of the marriage and heighten the risk of poor child outcomes.
Furthermore, some of the associations between separation and child outcomes are due to genetic inheritance. One factor that plays a more complex role is interparental conflict. Conflict between parents plays a dual role, both as part of the explanation for the link between parental separation and child outcomes and as an independent influence on child outcomes.
It is clear, nevertheless, that post-separation conflict which is bitter and ongoing and which places the children at the centre of disputation has highly malign effects on child wellbeing. Yet this is a factor which is surely amenable to treatment.
If separating couples can be helped to reduce levels of conflict following a separation, or at least to understand the importance of conducting their affairs out of the way of the children and in ways that do not implicate them, then this is likely to have significant benefits for the wellbeing of the children. The evidence from the evaluation of the New Beginnings Program shows that it is possible to design programmes aimed at ameliorating the negative fallout from a parental separation that yield real benefits for children, in terms of their mental health, behaviour and general wellbeing.
This suggests it would be useful to conduct further investigations to identify promising approaches that afford children protection from a parental separation that could be considered for trial in the New Zealand context. Allison, Paul D. Furstenberg, Jr. Amato, Paul R.
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