Children of Divorce
Daniel S. Shaw & Erin M. Ingoldsby
Divorce is one of the most common environmental stressors experienced by children. As more has been learned about children's adjustment to divorce and response to treatment, researchers have come to view it as a complex series of transitions and adaptations, rather than a simplistic, unitary event. Within this process framework, a greater appreciation for the differential effects of divorce and application of treatment has been achieved. This paper will review present conceptualizations of the impact of divorce on children's adjustment, literature pertinent to treatment outcome, and suggestions to optimize intervention. At the conclusion of the chapter, a case illustration is provided to demonstrate the multifaceted issues involved in clinical work with this population of children.
Core Features and Epidemiology
Within the last two decades, the divorce rate in the United States has increased substantially. Since 1958, when there were 2.1 divorces per 1,000 population, a gradual increase in the number of divorces has occurred, peaking at 5.3 per 1,000 population in 1979 and 1981 (Glick & Lin, 1986), and stabilizing at 4.7 as of 1990 (US Department of Health & Human Services, 1990). According to projections based on 1990 census data, 40% of all children can expect to live in a single-parent household because of divorce before the age of 16 (Cherlin, 1992). Based on the increase of divorces over the last three decades and the prospect that a similarly high number will occur in the future, it remains imperative to understand the effects of divorce on children's adjustment.
At a basic level, it can be stated with assurance that all divorces involve change for children. Some of these changes might occur prior to the parental separation; some might produce improved rather than worsened conditions. Whatever the outcome, these changes require that children adapt to new environmental conditions. Despite the growing commonality of divorce in the United States, the transitions that are typically involved in the family adaptation to divorce should not be minimized. These involve significant changes in daily living for parents and children. On the other hand, to assert that these changes will necessarily result in a pathological outcome for children would be an inaccurate representation of our current knowledge base. In this section, important issues related to children's adjustment to divorce will be examined. This will include a review of factors that have been found to increase or decrease children's vulnerability to the effects of marital dissolution and a review of children's outcome to divorce in specific domains.
Types of Problems Experienced by Divorced Children
Although many children from divorced families will never show signs of severe psychopathology, a substantive body of research indicates that divorce does place children at an increased risk for three different types of adjustment difficulties: (1) externalizing problems, (2) internalizing problems, and (3) cognitive deficits (Amato & Keith, 1991; Emery, 1988; Wallerstein, 1991; Zill, Morrison, & Coiro, 1993).
Externalizing Problems. Perhaps the most robust and consistent finding in the divorce literature relates to the association between divorce and children's externalizing problems (Grych & Fincham, 1992). These include such behaviors as delinquency, aggression, and disobedience. Although early research on this relation did not attempt to control for such variables as the reason for the parental separation and socioeconomic status (SES) (Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Nye, 1957), later more sophisticated research designs have replicated this result repeatedly (Grych & Fincham, 1992; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1978). Using data from the National Survey of Children (NSC), a nationally representative sample of 1,423 was evaluated three times between 1976 and 1987 when children were ages 7-11, 12-16, and 18-22, respectively (Furstenberg & Allison, 1989; Furstenberg, Peterson, Nord, & Zill, 1993; Zill et al., 1993). The majority of families remained married during this 11-year duration; however, a large minority experienced a parental separation before or during the course of the study, permitting investigators to examine the effects of age and divorce on children's short- and long-term functioning at home and school. At all three age periods, children of divorced parents were found to have higher rates of externalizing problems than children from two-parent families according to mothers, teachers, and their own self-report.
Hetherington and colleagues (1978), in their comparison of children from divorced and married families, also found children from divorced families to demonstrate more disobedient and aggressive behavior than peers from two-parent families. In addition, children from divorced families have been overrepresented among delinquents according to the self-reports of boys (Goldstein, 1984) and girls (Kalter, Riemer, Brickman, & Chen, 1985), and official delinquency statistics (Wadsworth, 1979). Recent studies of this association concur that divorced children are at risk for externalizing problems, particularly boys (Camera & Resnick, 1988; Forehand, McCombs, Wierson, Brody, & Fauber, 1990).
Internalizing Problems. The relation between divorce and internalizing problems has been less compelling than for externalizing problems. However, increasing evidence does suggest there might be such a relation (Forehand et al., 1990; Hoyt, Cowan, Pedro-Carroll, & Alpert-Gillis, 1990), particularly for girls (Furstenberg & Allison, 1989).
In two studies of samples of 200 children, consisting of middle school and high school students, respectively (Raschke & Raschke, 1979; Slater & Haber, 1984), no differences were found in the reported self-concepts of children from divorced and two-parent families. Berg & Kelly (1979) also found no differences between the same two groups in a sample of boys ranging from grammar to high school age. On the other hand, in a study of recently divorced families of 11 to 13 year-old children, significant differences were found between divorced and married families (Forehand, McCombs, Long, Brody, & Fauber, 1988). Another study involving second and third grade children from divorced families also found both parents and teachers to rate children as more depressed and anxious than children from first-time, two-parent families (Hoyt et al., 1990). Finally, results from the NSC data base indicate an increase in self-reported distress and depression at ages 12-16 and 18-22 among children from divorced families (Furstenberg & Allison, 1989; Zill et al., 1993).
Cognitive Deficits and Academic Problems. Like much of the research on divorce and children's adjustment, the majority of investigations in this area have not partitioned out the effects of "third variables" in explaining children's functioning. Single-parent status and lowered family income, two common consequences of divorce, are two factors that need to be ruled out before attributing changes in child functioning to the parental separation. For example, there is agreement that children raised in single-parent families perform more poorly than children from two-parent families in a number of academic areas, although the magnitude of these differences tends to be small. In reviews by Hetherington, Camera, Featherman (1981) and Shinn (1978), children from single-parent families show deficits in (1) IQ scores, ranging between 1 and 7 points; (2) school achievement scores averaging less than one year in school; and (3) grade attainment of three-quarters of a year. However, not all of these families attained single-parent status via divorce.
Socioeconomic status (SES) also has been related to poor school achievement and correlated with single-parent status. However, when the effects of social class are taken into account, though academic differences are less, children from single-parent families still show significantly poorer academic functioning than children from two-parent families (Featherman & Hauser, 1978; Ferri, 1976; Guidubaldi, Perry, & Cleminshaw, 1984; Lambert & Hart, 1976; Zill, 1978). Moreover, when both the effects of SES and the reason for single-parent status are accounted for, investigators have found that children from divorced families do more poorly on academic tasks than children from other types of single-parent families (Grych & Fincham, 1992; Brody & Neubaum, 1996; Zill, 1978). Children from non-divorced, single-parent families, in turn, appear to experience more academic difficulties than children from two-parent families.
Guidubaldi and colleagues (1984) study of 699 children from 38 states provides some insight as to how children from divorced families might differ from children from other types of single-parent and two-parent families. Again, we know from other research that children from single-parent families show small, but significant differences on measures of intellectual capacity and school achievement compared to two-parent families. However, these differences are much larger, according to the Guidubaldi data, if measured by teacher behavior ratings, grade point averages, school attendance, and number of years in school. Divorced children were found to be significantly more dependent, noncompliant, and unpopular with peers according to teacher reports, had a history of lower grades in history and math, and were more likely to have repeated a grade. These findings were supported in a recent meta-analysis of 92 studies, which found children from divorced families to have significantly lower school achievement scores than nondivorced children (Amato & Keith, 1991). The authors note that effect sizes were generally modest.
Diagnosis and Assessment
Although children from divorced families show a wide array of behavioral difficulties at home and in school, the criteria used for diagnosis of these problems does not differ considerably from children from two-parent families. What does differ for children from divorced families are the issues that may precipitate problems. This section will review factors that have been related to poorer outcomes for divorced children.
As stated in the previous section, divorce in and of itself is not a reliable indicator of child psychopathology. As research on divorce and children's adaptation has accumulated, there has been a gradual shift in emphasis from family structure to family process (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Emery, 1988; Grych & Fincham, 1992). That is, events that accompany marital dissolution, rather than the event of divorce per se, have been identified as potentially more salient correlates of children's adjustment. Longitudinal investigations of divorced families (Hetherington et al., 1978, 1981; Wallerstein, 1991) have provided particularly strong support for this focus on family process. Rather than discuss how "the" divorced child will adapt to divorce per se, investigators have redirected their attention to mediating factors that might account for the heterogeneity of child outcomes to divorce.
From within this family process perspective, Emery (1988) and Hetherington (1981) have suggested that the psychological impact of divorce on children needs to be divided into at least two levels. The first level relates to the short-term effects of the parental separation on the children's adjustment, a process that all children must undergo. Hetherington has conceptualized this initial transition in terms of a crisis model. From this perspective, children and adults must adapt to stresses associated with the parental separation, including marital conflict, loss, and uncertainty. The second level is related to the long-term psychological impact of divorce on children's adjustment. In the long-term, children's functioning reflects the family's adaptation to the changes necessitated by the divorce. As we shall see, children's long-term adjustment to divorce may be better, worse, or merely different than their pre-divorce adjustment, but appears to be mediated by several interrelated family process variables. These process variables include changes and adaptations in the following areas: (1) interparental conflict; (2) separation from an attachment figure; (3) temporal influences, including the passage of time and the children's age at the time of divorce; (4) parenting practices and nature of the relationship between the residential parent and children; (5) the relationship between children and their nonresidential parents; (6) remarriage; and (7) family economics.
Interparental conflict. Although clinicians have postulated an association between parental conflict and maladjustment in children for many years (Baruch & Wilcox, 1944; Minuchin; 1974), empirical attention to the effects of parental discord on children has increased only in the last two decade. From these recent controlled studies and from earlier reports of "broken" families, interparental conflict has been consistently identified as a major source of behavior problems in children across a wide array of family structures and settings (for reviews see Davies & Cummings, 1994; Grych & Fincham, 1990), including divorced and separated families (Hetherington et al., 1978). There is some evidence to suggest that parental conflict is the most salient influence on children's adjustment to divorce. In a recent meta-analysis, Amato and Keith (1991) compared the relative efficacy of three variables (parental absence, economic disadvantage, and parental conflict) to mediate the effects of divorce on children's adjustment. Although moderate effect sizes were found for both parental absence and economic disadvantage, parental conflict accounted for more of the negative consequences of divorce.
Studies involving between-family comparisons support the notion that separation per se is not necessarily as important to children's later development as the quality of the parents' relationship with one another. First, comparisons between two-parent and conflict-free, divorced families consistently have reported that children in the latter group have fewer emotional difficulties (Gibson, 1969; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1979; McCord, McCord, & Thurber, 1962; Rutter, 1979). Second, several investigators have reported children from divorced families to experience more behavioral problems than children from families where a father has died (Douglas, Ross, Hammond, & Mulligan, 1966; Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Gregory, 1965).
Separation from an Attachment Figure. Despite the evidence implicating the greater importance of interparental conflict than separation from an attachment figure in mediating children's adjustment to divorce, literature from other areas of child development suggests that children's separation from, and loss of, attachment figures relates to difficulties in interpersonal relationships (Ainsworth, 1979; Bowlby, 1980; Rutter, 1995). Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research that examines how divorce per se affects children's attachment to their parents and their other interpersonal relationships. Clinical experience and research from other contexts (i.e., children's reactions to parental death, separation due to military service) indicate that the short-term consequences of separation from an attachment figure follow a three-stage "acute distress syndrome" of upset/protest, followed by apathy/despair, and subsequent loss of interest/detachment (Bowlby, 1980; Rutter, 1981). Less is known about the long-term adjustment of children who experience such a loss, particularly in the context of divorce, where visitation schedules and custody arrangements are subject to change. Thus, it is difficult to ascertain if problems are directly related to the separation per se, to other family process variables, or to a combination of factors. It appears likely that the latter case would be the norm, with the loss of the attachment figure being more of a cause for concern to the child when the divorce has taken place recently. Other family process variables may also exacerbate the child's sense of loss and provide him/her with little sense of security to function in the post-divorce environment.
Temporal Influences. One temporal influence is the passage of time since the parental separation. There is an old adage, "Time heals all wounds." In understanding children's adjustment to divorce, the maxim has proven to be quite accurate. From a theoretical perspective, the healing properties of time have been conceptualized within Hetherington's (1981) crisis model of the short-term adaptation to divorce. As time passes, many of the stressors associated with divorce are lessened in intensity as adults and children adapt to new living situations. Thus, an eight year old child whose parents were divorced six years ago will most likely appear different from a child of the same age whose parents separated last year.
Unfortunately, from an empirical perspective, many investigators have failed to consider how long it has been since the parental separation took place when presenting their findings. For example, in their meta-analysis of 92 studies, Amato and Keith (1991) found only 40% to report the length of time since the parents' separation. Yet Kurdek (1981), Hetherington (1981), and Wallerstein and Kelly (1983) have all found that children's adjustment improves with time, as family members learn to cope with the new living arrangements. Although this evidence is not conclusive, children do experience greater adjustment difficulties in responding to divorce in the short run versus the long run. In the most methodologically rigorous longitudinal study, Hetherington (1979) found that the majority of children were showing improved functioning after two years following the parental separation, provided other family process variables were not interfering with the adaptation process (e.g., continued conflict between parents).
Another temporal issue of considerable practical significance is the child's age at the time of the divorce. Parents often wonder whether they should stay together "for the sake of the child" until a certain age. There are several theoretical viewpoints on this topic that suggest children will differentially interpret the parental separation according to their stage of cognitive and emotional development (Ainsworth, 1979; Bowlby, 1980). However, relatively little empirical data have been gathered to answer this question, particularly studies that control for both the children's age at the time of divorce and the length of time since the parental separation occurred. Moreover, the research that has been carried out has typically compared children who were younger than five or six years old when their parents separated with children whose parents separated after that age, making the task of drawing inferences between school-age and adolescent children difficult. In general, there are reasons to believe that many age groups might be more vulnerable to the effects of divorce.
Some investigators have hypothesized that preschoolers may be the most vulnerable group in dealing with a divorce because of their limited cognitive capacity (Brody & Neubaum, 1996; Hetherington, 1991; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Preschool age children often report feeling they are to blame for their parents' troubles due to an inability to fully appreciate the complexity of their parents' feelings and behavior (Hetherington, 1979).
Although school-age children have been found to be more aware of the reasons and rationales for their parents' emotional difficulties, some of these children have exhibited marked signs of distress and depression (Hetherington, 1981). Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) found children in the five to eight year range overcome by pervasive sadness, and a yearning for their parents' reconciliation. Children age nine and ten, while sharing some of the same feelings of sadness, displayed a greater capacity for worry and genuine empathy for their parents.
Some investigators have argued that adolescents should have fewer emotional problems in coping with divorce because of their advanced cognitive maturity, and their increased likelihood for having social support outside of the nuclear family (Brody & Neubaum, 1996). However, others have hypothesized that these children should be the most affected due to their longer exposure to the conflict (Buchanon, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980), and their more pronounced feelings of responsibility for their parents' separation. Kurdek and associates (1981) have completed a longitudinal study of upper middle class adolescents whose parents had separated within the last one to seven years, and found children's levels of interpersonal reasoning and locus of control to be important mediating variables in predicting their adjustment later in time. Other researchers have found similar components important in mediating adolescents' divorce experience, including the development of heterosexual relations, self-identity, and independence (Hetherington, 1972; O'Brien, Margolin, & John, 1995).
The Relationship between the Residential Parent and the Child. The term "change" was used to describe children's adaptation to divorce at the beginning of this chapter. Nowhere are these changes more apparent than in the relationships children have with their parents following the marital dissolution. Although this is true for both nonresidential and residential parents, disruptions in the latter's childrearing activities are so frequent and dramatic in the first few years following divorce that Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) have termed it a time of "diminished parenting." Since mothers continue to dominate as primary residential parents (i.e., the rate of father-custody families continues to be about 10%), even in families that share legal custody, the discussion that follows will pertain to issues faced in mother-headed divorced families. For the residential parent, many of these changes reflect the challenges of single-parent family status. As homeostatic balances in the family are disrupted, new equilibriums must be achieved in at least three substantive areas: (1) affectional relationships; (2) family authority structure; and (3) household task completion (Emery, 1988; Haurin, 1992).
First, affectional relationships may be drawn closer or more distant due to the parent's own emotional needs, the parent's perception of her child's needs, or loyalty dilemmas in the parent-child-parent triad. Since Hetherington's longitudinal study of mother-custody families is the most detailed empirical investigation of parenting practices in divorcing families, these findings will be the primary source of reference in this area. In the first year following divorce, Hetherington found divorced mothers to be less affectionate with their children, particularly boys. Although by the 2-year follow-up, there was an increase in maternal nurturant behavior towards children, at the 6-year follow-up divorced mothers continued to have more conflict with both their sons and daughters than mothers from nondivorced families (Haurin, 1992).
Hetherington also found the same disorganization-reorganization pattern of events in the domains of family structure and household task completion. Both processes appear to undergo dramatic change in the first year following divorce as children assume a greater amount of independence and number of responsibilities. This transformation, however, is not particularly smooth in the first year. Hetherington and others (Fauber, Forehand, Thomas, & Wierson, 1990; Simons, Whitbeck, Beaman, & Conger, 1994) report that custodial mothers make fewer maturity demands, communicate less well, and generally show more negative and inconsistent parenting practices than do married mothers. At the two-year follow-up, Hetherington's mothers had become more consistent and better able to control their children, though overall, children from divorced families remained less compliant than children from two-parent families. Finally, at the 6-year follow-up, divorced mothers were just as nurturant as nondivorced mothers, but continued to be more negative and less competent in disciplining their sons.
Although there is little empirical evidence to document other dysfunctional patterns of parent-child relationships following divorce, clinical experience suggests that problems at the opposite extremes also occur. For example, some mothers might become overly permissive, rigid, or emotionally dependent on their children. When parents lack a supportive other, discipline policies might be compromised because of the increased emotional dependence on the child, changing the nature of the hierarchical parent-child relationship to one where parent and child are confidantes. Unfortunately, parents who share this type of relationship with their children are more likely to use permissive parenting strategies for fear of loss of the child's willingness to play the role of friend. Similarly, it is likely that some parents react to adverse changes in emotional and financial resources associated with the divorce with a more rigid type of parenting style.
In sum, long-term disturbances in parenting are probably mediated by a number of factors, including the mother's emotional well-being, the social and economic support available to her, and the number, ages, and sex of the children (Emery, 1988; Hetherington, 1991). This has been demonstrated empirically, as mothers who are depressed, cut off from family and friendship support networks, have more severe economic difficulties or a number of young children are more likely to have parenting difficulties with their children (Emery, Hetherington, & DiLalla, 1984).
The Relationship between the Nonresidential Parent and the Child. The relationship between children and their nonresidential parents also must undergo a great transformation following divorce. The frequency of contact obviously changes as nonresidential parents, typically fathers, establish a new homeostatic balance with their children. However, before we review how this factor might affect children's adjustment, it is important to understand how frequent such visitations are on the average. Using the NSC data based on a nationally representative sample (Furstenberg et al., 1983), it is illuminating to note that 50% of children did not see their fathers in the past year, and only 16.4% saw them as frequently as once a week or more. Contact with nonresidential mothers is substantially higher, with only 13% of children not seeing their nonresidential mothers in the past year and 31% seeing their mothers on at least a weekly basis. Several factors are related to frequency of visitation for fathers. They include (1) time: as it passes, contact decreases; (2) education: more highly educated fathers spend significantly more time with their children; (3) race: African-American fathers spend significantly less time with their children than do whites or other minorities, and (4) distance to the residential parent's house: the closer the distance, the greater the amount of visitation.
Another basic issue is the relation between children's adjustment and regular contact with the nonresidential parent. Research does not indicate that regular contact with the nonresidential parent is necessarily a positive outcome. In Amato and Rezac's (1994) review of the literature, they found 18 studies that suggested children's well-being was positively related to the frequency of contact with the nonresidential parent. In constrast, nine studies found no relation, and six studies found frequency of contact to be associated an increase in child problems. Findings using the nationally-representative NSC data base are typical of the latter. Furstenberg and Allison (1989) found few significant relations between frequency of contact and child adjustment covering a wide variety of domains. It is likely that results are mixed because frequency of contact fails to provide a full picture of nonresidential parent-child relationship. Frequency of contact and child adjustment are probably mediated by other factors, including the quality of both the father-child and father-mother interaction. In one study that simultaneously examined the relationship between nonresidential parent contact, parental conflict, and child adjustment, an interactive relation was found (Amato & Rezac, 1994). Contact with the residential parent was associated with child adjustment problems most strongly in families in which parental conflict was high. However, children with regular contact with the nonresidential parent whose parents were low on parental conflict showed the lowest rates of behavior problems. This study is notable because the sample included over 12,000 children, including an oversampling of minority and different types of single-parent families.
This is not to suggest that a strong relationship with the nonresidential parent can have a positive affect on the child's functioning. There is some research to suggest that having a good relationship with one parent can buffer the adverse effects of divorce (Amato & Rezac, 1994; Hetherington et al., 1979; Peterson & Zill, 1986). More research that takes into account family process variables (e.g., parental conflict) is needed before the effects of the nonresidential parent contact can be appropriately evaluated.
Remarriage. Remarriage is another environmental stressor many children from divorced families must face. The NSC data indicate that within five years of a marital disruption, four of seven white children and one of eight African-American children will enter stepfamilies (Furstenberg et al., 1983). Thus, for at least the majority of children from white families, living in a single-parent family will not be a long-term circumstance. For children from African-American families, single-parent status is likely to be more of an enduring condition. Although space does not permit a thorough investigation of how this transition affects children's functioning, a few pertinent findings will be discussed.
First, because of the increased complexity of remarriage, it is fraught with more methodological problems than research on children's adjustment to divorce. Preliminary evidence indicates that adjustment may vary as a function of the child's sex and age at which remarriage occurred. For instance, preschool boys appear to experience benefits from remarriage (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985; Zill et al., 1993), while adolescent-age boys appear to respond less favorably (Hetherington, et al., 1992). Girls generally have been found to show an increase in adjustment problems (Clingempeel, Brand, & Ievoli, 1984; Santrock, Warshak, Lindbergh, & Meadows, 1982), but both boys and girls fare equally poorly in adjusting to remarriages when they occur during adolescence. Some of these sex difference can be attributed to children's relationships with the custodial parent. Since most children reside with their mothers following divorce, this transition typically involves the addition of a stepfather. For boys, the addition of a same-sex parent during early childhood may serve to buffer the strained mother-son relationship that typically follows divorce at a time period in which children may show more openness towards the inclusion of a new parent (Hetherington et al., 1985). During adolescence, boys may be less willing to accept a new father figure in their lives. For girls, who tend to draw closer to mothers following divorce, the stepfather may be viewed as an intruder (Peterson & Zill, 1986), especially during adolescence, a period already marked by social and physical challenges (i.e., puberty).
Remarriage may also produce other changes for children, including a decrease of visitation with the nonresidential parent (Bray & Berger, 1993; Furstenberg et al., 1983), increased parental conflict between the children's biological parents (Hetherington, 1991), and an additional parental divorce (Brody & Neubaum, 1996; Kurdek, 1994). With regards to this latter finding, the presence of children from a previous marriage is associated with an increased risk of divorce (Capaldi & Patterson, 1991; Emery, 1988). In the NSC study, 37% of children who entered a stepfamily later experienced an additional parental divorce, with 10% experiencing three or more marital changes.
Family Economics. Loss of family income is a reality of divorce, particularly for mothers. Since mothers are generally the primary custodians of children following divorce, most children experience a lowered standard of living. In analyzing the effects of loss of income on children's adjustment to divorce, it has been difficult to partition out the effects of low-income and single-parent status (which occurs for a number of reasons other than divorce) from divorce per se (Amato & Keith, 1991; Laosa, 1988). However, using data from the Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics (MPSID) based on the changing incomes of 2,400 women, Duncan and Hoffman (1985) has found that the real income of couples who divorced decreased 19.2% for men and 29.3% for women between 1968 and 1974. The fact that women were more likely to be responsible for the primary care of children was the single factor most responsible for the difference. Although many fathers are required to pay child support as a part of the divorce settlement, compliance with support orders is the exception, not the rule (Emery, 1988). In 1981, only 47% of mothers who were ordered to receive child support received the full amount; 28% received no payment at all (National Institute for Child Support Enforcement, 1986).
What does a loss of income mean to a child from a divorcing family? The impact is likely to include several changes that cumulatively appear to have the effect of debilitating children's coping resources. Some of the consequences include moving the family home, changing schools, losing contact with friends, spending more time in childcare settings while mother is working, and dealing with the parent's concerns over financial pressures (Emery, 1988; Haurin, 1992). These factors might, in turn, affect the quality and quantity of interactions children have with their residential parent. Relatively few investigators have attempted to identify how economic factors might be related to increased psychological impairment, but divorced working mothers provide less cognitive and social stimulation to their children than both married nonworking and married working mothers (MacKinnon, Brody, & Stoneman, 1982). Thus, children might be affected psychologically by the loss of income at two levels: (1) indirectly through poorer parenting, as residential parents have less time and energy to give to their children because of the increased demands necessitated by the loss of income; (2) directly through the changes in environmental circumstances such as lower quality schools and neighborhoods, and the loss of friends.
Evidence for Prescriptive Treatment
Despite the multitude of modalities and techniques, there is a paucity of empirical evidence for prescriptive treatments with children of divorce. In two recent reviews, the authors report that only a handful of child- and adult-focused interventions have been empirically evaluated (Lee, Picard, & Blain, 1994; Grych & Fincham, 1992). They also note that there have been no systematic investigations of the efficacy of individual or family interventions designed specifically for divorced families. Treatment outcome research has consisted almost entirely of manualized group interventions conducted either with the children or their parents (at times, child and parent groups are run concurrently). The results have been largely equivocal, with vast differences in effect sizes reported (Lee et al., 1994). Few studies have demonstrated any significant decrease in ratings of child externalizing problems, although children's coping skills, competence ratings, and interparental conflict were often rated as improved in the treated groups. A summary of these investigations is now discussed.
The majority of well-controlled treatment research has been conducted with school-based, group interventions. Most primarily target the child, with varying levels of parental participation. These interventions are generally designed to help children identify and work through the often distressing and confusing issues surrounding the divorce, as well as to develop effective coping strategies for dealing with negative feelings and family interactions. Many of these findings are limited because in most cases, the children were not initially identified as clinically disturbed.
Stolberg and colleagues (Stolberg & Garrison, 1985) developed a preventive program, the Divorce Adjustment Project (DAP), intended for psychologically healthy children facing divorce. The DAP consisted of school-based, children's support groups (CSG) and community-based, single parent's support groups (SPSG). The children's support group treatment consisted of 12 sessions. The first part of each 60-minute session was devoted to discussion of divorce-related topics; the second part focused on teaching problem-solving, anger control, communication, and relaxation skills. The parent's group, a 12-week support and skills-building program for divorced, custodial mothers, was expected to indirectly influence children's adjustment by enhancing parenting skills, and the post-divorce adjustment of their parents. Eighty-two children (aged 7-13) and their mothers participated in one of four treatment groups: child intervention alone, parent intervention alone, concurrent child and parent intervention, and no intervention. At post-treatment and five-month follow-up, subjects in the children's support group reported statistically significant improvements in self-concept and adaptive social skills. When parents participated in the support group, treatment prevented the deterioration in parent adjustment found in the other groups at post-testing, but had no demonstrable effect on children's adjustment. The concurrent child and parent intervention yielded no significant improvements for either children or parents. This may have been due to significant between-group differences. Mothers in the parent-child treatment group had been separated longer, had lower employment status, and reported less time spent by noncustodial fathers with their children.
As an outgrowth of the DAP, Pedro-Carroll and Cowen (1985) created the children of divorce intervention project (CODIP), that was focused on building mutual support, cognitive-behavioral skills, and self-esteem. In two studies on the efficacy of CODIP with 4th-6th grade suburban school children (Pedro-Carroll & Cowen, 1985; Pedro-Carroll, Cowen, Hightower, & Guare, 1986), the experimental groups demonstrated greater improvement on child, parent, and teacher ratings of adjustment than comparison and control groups. Similar positive effects were reported with both younger (Alpert-Gillis, Pedro-Carroll, & Cowen, 1989) and same-age urban school children (Pedro-Carroll, Alpert-Gillis, & Cowen, 1992), using age-appropriate and culturally-sensitive versions of the program. It should be noted that this study also was limited to children who were not currently receiving mental health services; thus, it is unclear whether differenes among groups were clinically significant. Parents and teachers also were aware of the children's group status, indicating a potential for bias and need for caution in interpreting results.
Bornstein, Bornstein, and Walters (1985) developed and investigated a six-session, group treatment program focusing on identification of feelings, communication skills, and anger control skills. The first five sessions involved only the children (aged 7 to 14 years). The sixth session also included their recently separated or divorced parents. Subjects were assigned to one of two experimental groups or a delayed treatment control group, matched for age, sex, and parent ratings of parent-parent conflict. Although teachers reported a decrease in problem behavior in the experimental group, overall child adjustment was judged unchanged by both parent and child reports. Despite the apparent lack of improvement, both child and adult consumer satisfaction questionnaires revealed high levels of satisfaction with the treatment program.
Recently, Stolberg and colleagues attempted to address previous criticisms by studying the effects of treatment in a sample with higher rates of clinically-significant problems at pre-treatment, and comparing specific components of the intervention. Building upon the support group and skills training model of the DAP and CODIP interventions, Stolberg and Mahler (1994) compared the additive effects of each of three treatment components among children from 103 divorced and 26 nondivorced families: support, skills training, and transfer of skills to "real-life" situations through workbook assignments for both parents and children. Almost half of the children met criteria for diagnosis according to DSM-III at the pre-treatment assessment.
In general, the children in the skills and support condition had higher ratings of improvement in adjustment at post-testing than other groups. Contrary to the authors' predictions, the transfer, skills, and support condition failed to demonstrate any additional gains in treatment effectiveness over other treatment conditions or controls. In addition, none of the treatment conditions showed long-term effects at the one-year follow-up with the exception of behavior in the home. Parents rated the child's behavior as significantly improved, although no differences were found among the three treatment conditions. The authors concluded that the failure to see improved treatment effects for the transfer, skills, and support group may have resulted from limited parental and child interest in completing out-of-session homework assignments, or from parents' potential inability to facilitate the learning of the transfer skills (completion of the out-of-session assignments were not monitored).
Interventions Targeting Post-Divorce Parental Relationships
As discussed above, several interrelated familial and environmental factors have been proposed as influencing children's adjustment to divorce. Recently, there have been efforts to develop and evaluate interventions that target specific components of post-divorce family functioning, particularly interparental conflict, discipline practices, and the quality of parent-child relationships. These interventions typically have been parent-focused group treatments, which are designed to increase parents' awareness of the effects of divorce on their children, decrease parental conflict, and enhance parenting skills. As with the child-focused treatments, evaluations of these interventions have produced mixed results (Lee et al., 1994). Although most studies report positive effects for the targeted behaviors (i.e. improved relations between parents, increased awareness of children's divorce-related feelings), few demonstrate improvement in child adjustment. The most methodologically sound of these are discussed below.
Wolchik and colleagues (1993) evaluated a parent-based intervention that was designed to affect five factors thought to influence children's adjustment to divorce: quality of the custodial parent-child relationship, negative divorce-related events including parental conflict, contact with the non-custodial parent, support from non-parental adults for both parents and children, and disciplining practices. Seventy recently divorced residential parents and children were placed randomly in either the treatment or wait-list control group. Treatment effects for child adjustment outcome measures were mixed. The treated group reported lower ratings of aggression than the control group 10-12 weeks post-treatment. The two groups did not differ on ratings of anxiety or conduct disorder. However, there was a significant interaction between the intervention and pre-test behavior problems on post-treatment behavior problems, with those children with poorer initial functioning demonstrating the largest positive effects. Results primarily involved pre- and post-treatment differences on two factors: quality of the custodial parent-child relationship and negative divorce-related events.
Given the established relation between post-divorce parental acrimony and child behavior problems, two types of interventions have been carried out to decrease interparental conflict. The first, divorce mediation, offers an indirect means of providing assistance to children caught in the middle of their separated parents' conflict. Although the most obvious goal of divorce mediation is to negotiate a mutually-acceptable divorce settlement, it provides a chance for couples to address areas of disagreement, and possibly decrease the amount of acrimony for future relations (Emery, Shaw, & Jackson, 1987). Thus far, research on divorce mediation has demonstrated that it represents a viable alternative to the antagonistic climate of traditional divorce court proceedings, and an especially more appealing alternative for fathers who often feel dissatisfied with adversarial procedures (Emery & Wyer, 1987). However, little data are currently available to assess whether mediation's hypothesized potential for decreasing parental conflict also may have long-term benefits for children's psychological well-being. In a nine-year follow-up study comparing families who experienced divorce mediation to those who went through traditional litigation procedures, no significant differences were found on child adjustment at time of divorce or on subsequent use of child mental health services between the two groups (Dillon & Emery, 1996). However, the reports of child adjustment were retrospective and based on the informant's response to a single question in a telephone interview, and approximately half of the subjects were unavailable for the follow-up assessment.
A second intervention designed to decrease parental conflict involves psychoeducational classes for parents seeking a divorce. Arbuthnot and Gordon (1996) evaluated consumer satisfaction and child adjustment at the end of a two-hour, mandatory education class. The intervention consisted of watching a videotape focused on increasing parents' sensitivity to their children's difficulties surrounding the divorce, and participating in skills-building exercises focused on lowering children's exposure to parental conflict. The treatment group consisted of 89 treament families and 23 no-treatment families who had filed for a divorce in the past year. Parents' skills training items and child exposure to conflict and adjustment were evaluated post-treatment and six months later, but only 46 of the 89 treatment families completed the follow-up.
Parents in the treatment group showed improvement on skills training and expression of anger towards ex-partner compared to parents in the comparison group, which were maintained at follow-up. Although most of the child adjustment ratings did not differ, children in the treatment group had fewer school absences and visits to the physician in the three months prior to the follow-up. This investigation, while providing preliminary support for positive effects of divorce education, has important limitations. Child adjustment ratings were based on single-items and measurement was limited to parental report.
Selecting Optimal Treatment Strategies
Overall, the research on group treatment of divorced children has demonstrated few consistent positive effects. While specific components of interventions which target specific factors appear theoretically promising, more research is needed to bridge the gap between basic research and intervention. As shown above, it appears unlikely that interventions that target only the child or only the residential parents will have powerful immediate or long-term effects on children's adjustment. Divorce is influenced by many interrelated familial and environmental factors. Interventions which attempt to address individual, family and contextual issues are likely to have greater success.
Problems in Carrying Out Interventions and Relapse Prevention
As implied above, probably the most important element that precludes successful intervention is the complexity of changes that accompany divorce. Children who are having problems adjusting to divorce often are dealing with several changes in family functioning. It is likely that the child's adjustment will be no better than that of the residential parent because of the child's emotional dependence on the parent. Issues that are dependent on the parent's adjustment include (1) the level of parental acrimony, which may affect both the residential and nonresidential parent's relationship with the child; and (2) the residential parent's ability to be involved with the child and consistent in administering discipline. A second group of issues appears to be only at most, partially mediated by the parent's adjustment. These include (1) the child's adjustment to new schools, new peers, and new neighborhoods often resulting from the family's loss of income; (2) temporal influences discussed above including the child's developmental status and the time since the divorce occurred; and (3) remarriage which involves adjusting to a new parent and often new siblings. Handling any one of these issues may be challenging for a child, but dealing with several of them at once is often typical. Thus, effective treatment involves successfully combating several fronts. Similarly, relapse is often a function of change in one or two areas that were previously calm. For instance, divorced fathers typically remarry more quickly than divorced mothers. In a divorced family in which the biological father had regular contact with children from the first marriage, this may change when he remarries and begins having children in his second family. A child who made use of the biological father prior to his remarriage may only show adjustment problems as visitation by the father decreases 2-3 years after the divorce. More typical is the chaos that ensues in adjusting to the biological parents' initial separation. Often there are too many holes to fill simultaneously for the family to feel "adjusted." The following case illustration, based on a compiliation of several real cases, demonstrates some of these challenges.
Case IllustrationCase Description
Initially, Mrs. Joanne Pilbus, age 32, contacted the Psychology Department Clinic because of the problematic behavior of her 11 year-old son, Reggie. At the time of the phone intake, Mrs. Pilbus mentioned that she had separated from her husband, Jim Pilbus, age 35, nine months ago. Reggie's behavior had begun deteriorating a few months prior to the separation. Mrs. Pilbus noted that her other child, Alicia, age 8, had shown few behavior problems since the separation, though Alicia did speak of missing her father about once every two weeks. According to Mrs. Pilbus, Reggie was currently disruptive at home and at school. At home, he was noncompliant and defiant, refusing to complete daily chores and consistently challenging Mrs. Pilbus' authority. Reggie had also developed an "attitude" towards Alicia, regularly starting fights and acting aggressively towards her. At school, Reggie's grades had fallen from A's and B's to C's and D's in the past 6 months, and he had been suspended from school twice during the same period of time for fighting with peers. This pattern of disruptive behavior had begun approximately two months prior to the parental separation. Previously, Reggie had questioned his mother's authority once every month or two, and had never engaged in fighting at school.
During the phone intake, Mrs. Pilbus described her relationship with Mr. Pilbus as "horrible," commenting that the divorce had become "messier and messier" during the past year. According to Mrs. Pilbus, the marriage had dissolved because Mr. Pilbus had engaged in several extramarital affairs. Mr. Pilbus was now living with Ms. Sylvia Duncan, age 24, whom he had begun seeing prior to the Pilbus' separation. Mrs. Pilbus stated that she was still extremely angry at Mr. Pilbus concerning the affairs and the dissolution of the marriage. When asked if and how often the two children were seeing their father, Mrs. commented that Mr. Pilbus' visitation was "irregular at best." During the first few months after the initial separation, he had seen the children at least once every two weeks, but during the past 4-5 months, his contact had decreased dramatically. In the past two months, he had seen the children only once. Mr. Pilbus had also been negligent in making child support payments, wavering from an initially consistent record.
Because of the ongoing tensions between the parents, the initial intake session included Mrs. Pilbus and the two children. During the intake, Mrs. Pilbus was very adamant about both Reggie's and Mr. Pilbus' misbehavior. Alicia spoke only when spoken to, but Reggie articulately defended his own and his father's behavior, and challenged Mrs. Pilbus' competency to make decisions. When Reggie was asked about his behavior at school, he stated only that he would be "... ok if people just left him alone." When asked to describe the quality of his relationship with his father, Reggie said it was "good," but that he would like to see his father more often.
The Pilbus family was dealing with several of the most problematic issues facing recently separated families. These include highly acrimonious relations between the separating parents, disturbed relations between the residential parent and her son -- including problems in parenting, and problematic relations between the nonresidential parent and the two children. It was also clear that at least Reggie missed seeing Mr. Pilbus. Finally, Mr. Pilbus wanted the children to become better acquainted with his new partner, Ms. Duncan. The children had only met Ms. Duncan twice.
The family appeared to be in the midst of Hetherington's crisis phase in adapting to the separation. For the family to make a successful adjustment, several unresolved issues would need to be addressed. The following goals were suggested for intervention: (1) decreasing the amount of parental acrimony between the parents; (2) improving the relationship between Mrs. Pilbus and her children; (3) assisting Mrs. Pilbus to establish a more consistent and firm discipline practices; (4) exploring ways to improve the children's quality and frequency of contacts with Mr. Pilbus; and (5) finding an outlet for the children, particularly Reggie, to vent some of their hurt and frustration in dealing with the loss of their parents' marriage and contact with their father.
Treatment was planned to address as many of the aforementioned issues as possible. First, to improve the parenting of Mrs. Pilbus and relations between her and Reggie, family sessions were held. Second, an attempt was made to contact Mr. Pilbus despite Mrs. Pilbus' objections, to explore ways of improving the couple's relationship as well as Mr. Pilbus' relationship with his children. Finally, an attempt was made to find a group for children from divorced families, for both Reggie and Alicia, to help cope with the complex transitions of the divorce process.
Treatment Course and Problems in Carrying out Interventions
A multifaceted treatment package was designed and implemented based on the goals detailed above. In the first few months, treatment was marked by variability in Reggie's behavior and by problems in implementing specific components of intervention. Family meetings with Mrs. Pilbus and the two children were initiated immediately following the first intake session. Family work was aimed at improving the quality of communication between the children and Mrs. Pilbus, particularly Reggie and his mother. The therapist also worked to improve the consistency of Mrs. Pilbus' parenting, encouraging her to provide and uphold a firm set of rules for the children. Both Reggie and Alicia were encouraged to help Mrs. Pilbus design family regulations; however, Mrs. Pilbus was treated as the higher voice of authority in resolving disputes. Reggie's behavior showed dramatic improvement during the first few weeks of therapy, but there were two weeks in the second and third months of treatment that he showed signs of regression. On one occasion, Reggie became involved in a fight at school, while on another occasion he refused to complete chores at home for a full week. Overall Mrs. Pilbus was showing greater consistency in setting and enforcing rules, while Reggie's behavior was marked by inconsistency.
While "family" treatment was initiated without delay, involving Mr. Pilbus in therapy was a more difficult task. Although Mr. Pilbus sounded eager to be more involved with his children and resolve disputes with Mrs. Pilbus during the initial phone contact, he was less cooperative in his attendance at sessions. After two cancellations, Mr. Pilbus did meet with the therapist. Mr. Pilbus agreed with many of the goals expressed by Mrs. Pilbus and the children; he wanted to spend more time with them and improve the parental relationship so it would not get in the way of his relationship with Reggie and Alicia. He added to these goals a desire for the children to get to know Ms. Duncan. Conjoint sessions were planned with the children and with Mrs. Pilbus separately. Once the children had re-established contact with Mr. Pilbus, plans were made to include Ms. Duncan in family meetings with the children. During the second and third month of treatment, sessions with Mr. Pilbus were held two out of every three weeks. Mr. Pilbus was able to convey his regret about having less time for Reggie and Alicia due to his increased involvement with Ms. Duncan, but also his commitment to maintain his relationship with them. The children, especially Reggie, were permitted to vent their anger and hurt concerning their parents' divorce and their father's perceived abandonment of them since the separation.
At the end of three months of treatment, though some goals of therapy were beginning to become actualized (e.g., improved parenting of the residential parent, re-establishment of relations between the children and non-residential parent), several issues remained unresolved. First, no children's divorce group was located for Reggie or Alicia. Despite the therapist's efforts to find such a treatment modality throughout the course of treatment, these efforts were unsuccessful. Second and most notably, the parents' level of conflict continued to be elevated. To treat this latter issue, the next phase of intervention involved conjoint sessions with Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus without the children. Mrs. Pilbus was reluctant to attend sessions with Mr. Pilbus, but the therapist was able to convince her of the importance of the sessions for the children's well-being, if not for herself. Although the first two of these sessions were marked by hostile comments from Mrs. Pilbus and bitter counterattacks by Mr. Pilbus, both sessions were productive in establishing a structured medium for the parents to discuss timesharing issues. The therapist played an active role to minimize open conflict by structuring most of the sessions closely (see Emery et al., 1987). Both Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus were permitted to vent their anger, but only in a controlled manner (e.g., when tempers flared, the therapist intervened to literally stop the interaction). Discussions were focused on plans for changing the present circumstances concerning visitation and support. Mr. Pilbus was encouraged to visit more frequently, but at times all parties found acceptable. Mr. Pilbus also was encouraged to provide consistent child support payments. By the end of the second session, both Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus had agreed in principle to these proposed changes. The parents were encouraged to think of visitation plans that would be mutually acceptable during the week. In the meantime, a visit with the children was arranged for Mr. Pilbus. After four more sessions, firm plans were laid for visitation and support. Although Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus were not particularly friendly to one another during most of the meetings, they were able to work out their disagreements over timesharing.
While the work with Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus was taking place in months 4 to 6 of therapy, Reggie and Alicia also were meeting with the therapist each week. Some of these sessions were held with Mrs. Pilbus to continue working on parenting and mother-child relationship issues. Other sessions involved Mr. Pilbus and sometimes Ms. Duncan, to discuss parent-child issues and relations with Ms. Duncan, respectively. The children initially were not pleased with the introduction of Ms. Duncan into sessions; however, once rapport with their father had been improved, her presence was tolerated and even appreciated at times (e.g., when she stood up for the children's point of view in discussing rules at Mr. Pilbus' residence). Finally, once a month the children met with the therapist alone to discuss intrapersonal issues surrounding the divorce process. These sessions allowed both Reggie and Alicia to explore and vent feelings relating to the divorce process.
All phases of therapy were terminated seven months after the initial intake. Many of the initial goals of therapy were attained. At termination, relations between Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus, and the children and their parents had showed great improvement. Reggie's behavior at home and school had returned to levels approaching his status prior to the parental separation. Fighting with peers at school and at home with Alicia had diminished dramatically. Reggie's school work had also improved some, but not to the level of his pre-separation performance. Mr. and Mrs. Pilbus continued to minimize contact with one another, but were successful in establishing a consistent visitation schedule for their children. Mr. Pilbus also was more consistent with support payments.
Summary This chapter has outlined the complex issues involved in treating children from divorced families. Several core diagnostic issues have been described that are often related to child behavior problems in divorced families. These include interparental conflict, parenting practices and the nature of the relationship between the residential parent and children, loss of contact and relationship with the children's nonresidential parent, remarriage, and loss of family income. Though few empirical investigations have provided data that relate improvement in these factors to clinically significant gains in child behavior, it is suggested that clinicians pay close attention to these variables when intervening with troubled children from divorced families. A case example was provided to illustrate how successful intervention might be implemented. It is recommended that a multifaceted treatment package be used to deal with the complex issues facing families adapting to changes necessitated by divorce.
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