Building Bridges

Background (continued)

How likely is it that a child will experience serious problems during and after divorce?
Children whose parents divorce are not all alike, just as children whose parents do not divorce are not all alike. Knowing simply that one family is divorced and another family is together does not permit any useful prediction of the life course of either family, or of either family's children.

Different studies of the occurrence of serious problems among children of divorce report different findings, because many factors influence the outcomes of such research. Some of them are the populations studied; the research methods used; the problems examined; the family's history and structure; the parents' mental health, parenting ability, and overall level of functioning; the resources available to the family; the child's gender, temperament, and age; and the cultural setting in which the divorce occurred.

The best known studies of the short-term and long-term effects of divorce on children are probably those published by Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues, in research papers and books for general readers. Building on earlier research, Wallerstein combined narratives with numbers: deeply moving personal stories with compelling statistics. Her work moved divorce into the light, and away from the secrecy, shame, and scorn that characterized this life transition at the time she began studying a group of 60 newly divorced families in Marin County, California in 1971. Data reported in 1980 by Wallerstein and Joan Kelly in the widely-read Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce (17) showed severe distress of almost all the children of these families, beginning at the time of their parents' divorces and continuing for five years afterwards, the specific responses reflecting the age of the child at the time of the breakup. Follow-up studies (published by Wallerstein in 1991 (10), Wallerstein and Lewis in 1998 (11), and Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee in 2000 (12)) reported continuing and cumulative disruption of functioning in the lives of many children, and, in the lives of others, late effects appearing many years after an apparently satisfactory adjustment initially.

The parents of these 60 families had all sought divorce-related guidance and educational intervention at the time of their divorce. One third of them displayed "generally adequate psychological functioning". One half were found to be "moderately impaired " (with histories, for example, of severe neurotic difficulties, chronic depression, or impaired ability to relate to others or to control rage or sexual impulses). The rest were described as "severely troubled", with histories of such problems as "paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and family" (17). The children in the study, all of whom were within normal limits with regard to intellectual capacity and social development, fell into three clusters in terms of psychodevelopmental adequacy: thirty-six percent with well integrated personalities and successful coping, forty-eight percent with a mixture of successes and failures, and seventeen percent with "impairments and failures in psychological functioning (that) were so obviously chronic that that the divorce seemed to represent yet another traumatic event in a life filled with trauma, lack of gratification, and failures in mastery at various developmental stages" (17). All children seen in followup during the ensuing twenty-five years were seen in personal face-to-face interviews at five-year intervals.


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