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
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
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
"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,"
Divorce not all bad news for
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
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
"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
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.