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U.S. News Archive
July 21 - July 27, 2000





This page contains news for the period July 21, 2000 through July 27, 2000.


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Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Marital conflict may harm kids more than divorce

A story published today by Reuters Health says that staying together for the sake of the children is clearly not the best solution to marital discord, according to recent studies. It's the high levels of conflict, not divorce itself, that appear to cause problems for children.

"Marital conflict is a more important predictor of child adjustment than is divorce itself or post-divorce conflict," concludes Dr. Joan B. Kelly, of the University of California at San Francisco. In the August issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Kelly summarizes a decade of research into the effects of marital conflict and divorce on children, and concludes that the negative effects of troubled marriages are at least as important as whether or not the parents actually divorce.

"For 30 years, the event and process of divorce have been viewed as the major cause of the many observed behavioral symptoms and longer-term adjustment problems in children and adolescents," Kelly notes. But several long-term studies report that "as many as half of the behavioral and academic problems of children in marriages whose parents later divorced were observed 4 to 12 years before the separation."

Children in families with high levels of conflict often develop conduct disorders, antisocial behavior, difficulty with peers and authority figures, depression, and problems in school, says Kelly. Previous studies have found this to be true regardless of whether the parents eventually divorce.

Research has also found that conflict per se is not necessarily damaging to children--it's when parents have frequent, intense and openly hostile conflict that children seem to suffer the most. This is particularly true when parents can't resolve their disagreements and when physical violence is involved.

Kelly explains that marital conflict has both direct and indirect effects on children. For example, children exposed to parents' arguments and hostility learn those methods of dealing with conflict and frustration, and don't get the chance to learn social skills and control of aggression--skills that they need to get along with others.

Also, the stress of frequent exposure to conflict has actual physical effects that can damage children's ability to cope with negative emotions.

Marital conflict can also affect the quality of parent-child relationships, explains Kelly. "There is a spill-over of negative affect," she says, in which mothers often become more rejecting of their children, show less affection and use harsher methods of discipline. Fathers tend to withdraw more from the family and spend less time with their children, even before a separation or divorce occurs.

In many cases, children's problems after divorce can be linked to changes in economic circumstances and to high levels of conflict after the divorce.

"It is estimated that the economic problems of divorced households account for as much as half of the adjustment problems seen in divorced children," Kelly states. She explains that divorced parents tend to monitor their children less and show poorer parenting skills, and their children tend to rely more on friends and peer groups. In addition to a greater risk for using alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs, children of divorce also tend to have more illness and medical problems, and are three times more likely to get psychological treatment.

These problems are less likely, Kelly says, when parents try to get along after the divorce. Better outcomes are also more likely when the non-custodial parent takes an active parenting role, and when the custodial parent maintains good parenting practices.

"When custodial parents provide appropriate emotional support, adequately monitor children's activities, discipline authoritatively, and maintain age-appropriate expectations, children and adolescents are better-adjusted compared with divorced children experiencing less appropriate parenting," the researcher writes.

In addition, Kelly reports that studies show that most children of divorce eventually do pretty well. "Overall, this decade of research supports the view that the long-term outcome of divorce for the majority of children is resiliency rather than dysfunction."

The result is that when parents try to resolve their conflicts and avoid putting their children in the middle of them, the impact of divorce need not be negative. And if the conflicts can't be resolved, divorce may be the better alternative. Kelly reports that among children in high-conflict families, those whose parents divorced actually did better than those whose folks stayed together.

Specialized programs may help reduce the negative impact of conflict and divorce, Kelly notes. These programs can help reduce parental conflict and increase parents' understanding of their children's needs, as well as helping both parents adjust to the changes taking place.

"The psychological health of the parents and the quality of the parent-child relationships remain the best predictors of children's adjustment," concludes Kelly.

Divorce not all bad news for children

A story published today in the Sydney Morning Herald reports that the aftermath of divorce may actually be a new set of family relationships that are more helpful to children than the previous stressed-out marital family.

Carol Smart, Professor of Sociology and the director of the Centre of Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood at the University of Leeds, England, said that after divorce many people fashioned a new kind of family life which required them to be thoughtful and caring.

Professor Smart was the keynote speaker at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference in Sydney.

The conference also heard of new Australian research which showed primary-school-aged children in single-parent families did just as well as children in two-parent families.

But contrary to expectations, it suggested girls may be better off in some respects living with their fathers, and boys with their mothers.

Citing research based on interviews with 60 divorced parents and 117 children, Professor Smart said divorce confronted adults and children with new moral dilemmas about how to act and relate to each other.

"What is the proper thing to do if you are a child who does not want to see your dad, but you are supposed to; or if you hate your former spouse but your children still love him?" she said.

Her research showed that many worked hard to traverse the "new moral terrain" in a sensitive way.

Children also managed to forge new relationships with their parents after divorce, and worked hard to keep them going. Many developed a mature approach to the everyday problems they confronted, such as having to choose between an outing with a friend or time with dad at the weekend.

"We underestimate children if we don't recognise they can deal with [these moral dilemmas]," Professor Smart said. But people were so worried about the negative effects of divorce on children, they rarely stopped to ask children how they managed.

"The vast majority of the children wanted to be fair to both parents," she said.

However, it also showed children raised in single-parent families were just as well off on most measures as children raised in two-parent families.

The study, by Dr. Lisbeth Pike, head of the School of Psychology at the Edith Cowan University, in Western Australia, confirms other positive research findings that indicate Australian children in single-parent families have a different experience from their counterparts in the United States.

Dr. Pike assessed 272 primary-school-aged children, half in single-parent and half in two-parent families on measures of academic achievement, self-esteem and competency in "life skills".

Compared to the children in two-parent families, the single-parent children performed just as well in most respects.


Friday, July 21, 2000

Grandparents raising grandkids on the rise

A story published today in the Evansville Courier and Press reports that even though it is not a new phenomena, more and more grandparents are rising their grandchildren.

A new Census Bureau report says that between 1990 and 1997:

* The number of families headed by two grandparents (caring for children under 18 with no parents present) grew by 31 percent.

*Families where single grandmothers care for grandchildren, without any parents present, grew by 27 percent.

Why are there more grandparent-led households? Older people are living longer these days, so they are more likely to be around to help. But the main reason is that many more parents are unable to take care of their children because of rising rates of divorce, drug use, AIDS and adults going to jail.

The census report also says that while many children living with grandparents are doing fine, 27 percent are living in poverty.


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