Parental divorce

There is now extensive evidence that divorce is associated with negative consequences for children. (9) Psychological and behavioural distress are common, especially in the period immediately following divorce; more severe disturbance is not. Boys in particular are at increased risk for conduct problems; anxious and withdrawn behaviours are less consistently found. Educational attainments and motivation are often compromised, and subsequent relationships may also be affected. As they approach adulthood, children of divorce move into close relationships earlier than their peers, but also experience higher risks of relationship breakdowns. The educational consequences of divorce seem most strongly influenced by socio-economic factors. Behavioural and social outcomes are more closely related to parental discord and distress, and to the effects of family breakdown on parenting.

Events both before and after the separation seem central in understanding these effects. Longitudinal studies, for example, have shown that children in divorcing families often show disturbed behaviour well before their parents separate.(1) Exposure to the discord and conflict that frequently precede divorce thus seem to be key components of risk. After separation, problematic relationships between parents may continue, and the parents' own distress may compromise their capacity to respond sensitively and consistently to their children's needs. Many families face a sharp decline in economic circumstances after divorce, and for many children their parents' separation may involve house moves, school changes, and many other disruptions to their established social networks. Each of this constellation of factors may contribute to subsequent outcomes.

A variety of different mechanisms may contribute to these effects. In addition to disrupted attachments, some adverse consequences may flow from modelling, with children imitating the discordant or aggressive interactions they observe within the family. Stress may impair children's capacities to regulate emotional responses, or to develop appropriate coping strategies. In a rather different way, parental discord may disrupt the quality of parenting, affecting the consistency and quality of discipline, increasing the likelihood of harsh disciplinary methods, or leading to arguments over discipline that directly involve the child. Finally, the affective quality of parent-child relationships may also be compromised by parental stress, and by 'spillover' effects from strains in other relationships.

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