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Examining the Long-Term Effects of Parental Divorce on Children

Examining the Long-Term Effects of Parental Divorce on Children

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As divorce rates steadily rise, there is an increasing need to explore the impact that this change in the family system has on the children within those families. The potential for long-term implications on children’ mental health in adulthood should be considered, and there is a need for emphasis on strategies to establish positive outcomes. In the journal, Personal Relationships, Heidi Riggio published a research paper entitled, “Parental Marital Conflict and Divorce, Parent-Child Relationships, Social Support, and Relationship Anxiety in Young Adulthood” (2004), which investigates the relationship between parental divorce and social outcomes in young adulthood. This research, when considered in conjunction with Patricia Noller et al.’s research work, “Conflict in Divorcing and Continuously Married Families: A Study of Marital, Parent-Child and Sibling Relationships”, published in The Journal of Divorce & Remarriage (2008), explore the impact that parental divorce has on children, and how the evolving family system serves as a framework for future relationships.

Research Question and Theory

The article, “Parental Marital Conflict and Divorce, Parent-Child Relationships, Social Support, and Relationship Anxiety in Young Adulthood” (Riggo, 2004), examined the relationship between the experience of parental divorce as a child and the potential for positive relationships in adulthood. In her research, Heidi Riggio suggested that “many studies have documented short- and long-term effects of parental marital conflict and divorce…parental conflict negatively affected children’s attachment to parents and subsequent feelings of security in relationships.” (p.99) The purpose of this research was to first establish the link between parental relationships and future relationships, then subsequently, determine the extent to which this had an impact, long-term. Riggio further suggested that the parent-child relationship is central to a child’s development processes, thus it is imperative to have an understanding of how the family dynamic can influence psychological growth.

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Patricia Noller et al. (2008) further explored this theory in their research paper, “Conflict in Divorcing and Continuously Married Families: A Study of Marital, Parent-Child and Sibling Relationships” (Journal of Divorce & Remarriage). Noller et al. investigated the consequences of parental divorce, and the impact it had on the couple, the parent-child relationship, and the sibling relationship. The focus of this research was on the depth and magnitude of conflict within the family, and whether this changed over time, particularly when comparing the family dynamic from a pre-divorce viewpoint, as compared to the level of conflict, post-divorce. Noller et al. state, “we were interested in whether divorce or conflict would have the stronger effect on the psychological adjustment of the children.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.4) It is suggested that the impact of parental divorce is far-reaching, affecting multiple relationships in the child’s life, extending beyond the parent-child relationship, and this paper seeks to conceptualize the impact divorce has on these multiple levels.

Literature Review

Heidi Riggio referenced several studies that investigate the connection between parental divorce and the children within those families. Riggio suggested that, based on prior research, “parental divorce is problematic for parent-child relationships, beyond the negative effects of parental conflict.” (Riggio, 2004, p. 100) Previous studies have indicated that divorce leads to impaired relationships (particularly with the non-custodial parent), and blurred boundaries, such as in the case of a parentified child, with the custodial parent. Additionally, research suggested that “young adults exposed to poor parental models of interpersonal behaviour may experience greater anxiety about participating in relationships, and that adult offspring of divorce are more pessimistic about experiencing lifelong marriage.” (Riggio, 2004, p.100) As the family system is an ever-changing, dynamic relationship, the impact of parental divorce may vary at different life stages; it is therefore prudent to examine the magnitude of its impact throughout the life cycle.

As an extension to this research, Noller et al. note that previous studies have indicated that “divorce is harmful to children, irrespective of the level of conflict.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.3) Conversely, it has been there may be some positive benefit to high-conflict relationships ending, providing a sense of relief to some children; as indicated in prior research, “following divorce in high-conflict relationships, the conflict stops, or at least lessens significantly.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.3) It is noted however, that prior research does demonstrate that the consequences of parental divorce are long-lasting, and the process of divorce itself may be damaging to adolescents.

Hypotheses

Heidi Riggio’s study was intended to identify the long-term consequences of parental divorce and in particular, how the parent-child relationship is impacted. Within the scope of her research, Riggio hypothesized five outcomes: (a) individuals who report high levels of parental conflict are expected to report lower quality relationships with their mother and father; (b) individuals from divorced families are expected to report significantly more negative outcomes with fathers; (c) individuals from divorced families are expected to report significantly more positive relationships with mothers; (d) individuals from divorced families are expected to report significantly less anxiety about personal relationships, given their less negative view of relationship failure; and (e) high-quality relationships with parents are expected to be positively related to number of and satisfaction with social supports (Riggio, 2004, p. 102).

Much like Riggio’s hypotheses, Noller et al. theorized three distinct outcomes: (a) higher levels of conflict in separated or divorcing than in married families; (b) lesser levels of conflict, post-divorce; and (c) high levels of conflict in families would affect the psychological adjustment of children (Noller et al., 2008 p.4) They note that, while “conflict between parents and adolescents is not uncommon, there may be evidence that the level of parent-adolescent conflict is higher in divorcing families than in married families.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.19) It is important to point out that this research also suggests that there needs to be a balance between the unavoidable stressors associated with parental divorce, and the presence of risk factors to help mitigate the negative effects; Noller et al. list protective factors to include a sense of “self-efficacy, coping skills, social support, and structural resources.” (p.2).

Participant Sample

Heidi Riggio’s sample consisted of 566 participants, 29% of whom were from divorced families. Using a ratio of 208 men:358 women, the participants ages ranged from 18-32 years old, and at the time of the study, 62% reported to still be living at home with one of their parents, all enrolled at a postsecondary institution of some kind. It was reported that the mean age at the time of parental divorce was 9 years old, with a standard deviation of 6.3.

Noller et al. utilized a sample of divorcing or separated families, including 221 children, 120 mothers, and 71 fathers. For families that were comprised of more than one child, only one child was selected as the “target”. 74% of the children resided with their mothers, and all children were between the ages of 10 and 16 years old. This study implemented a comparison sample of 179 married families, which included 343 children, 176 mothers, and 168 fathers. Each set of families were recruited separately, and it is noted that care measures were put in place to protect anonymity, though those measures were not disclosed in this research paper.

Methodology

Heidi Riggio instructed her participants to complete a series of measures in a particular order: (a) the social support questionnaire, which measures the perceived number of social supports; (b) the anxiety subscale of the relationship awareness scale, measuring the tendency to experience anxiety/discomfort in relationships; (c) the parental attachment questionnaire, assessing the quality of the parent-child relationship; (d) demographic information; and (e) the parental conflict scale, which explores the nature and severity of parental conflict- this is an assessment of an overall sense of discord in the marital relationship (Riggio, 2004, p.103). Each measure utilized a Likert Scale, ranging from four to six, depending on which component was being completed. As each measure was completed in the prescribed order above, the participants were not asked about parental conflict until the very end, in an effort to avoid reactive responses to previous questions. Riggio emphasized the importance of “obtaining parent-child relationship descriptions without prior questioning about parental conflict and marital status.” (Riggio, 2004, p.104)

Similar to Riggio’s research, Noller et al assessed participants using a variety of Likert Scale questionnaires, along with standardized inventory scales. Familial conflict was recorded by assessing three relationship areas: couple conflict, parent-child conflict, and sibling conflict.  A Likert Scale of 1-6 was utilized to record marital conflict, pre- and post-divorce, and the severity of marital arguments. Both the parents and child responded to these questions. To assess parent-child conflict, the ICPS Family Functioning Scale was used, comprised of 30 items measuring levels of intimacy, parenting style, and conflict (Noller et al., 2008, p.6). To assess the sibling relationship dynamic, Noller et al. categorized questions into two categories: level of conflict, and conflict resolution style. In addition, children were asked to complete a Conflict Resolution Styles questionnaire; this enabled Noller et al. to “assess adolescents’ reports of the different styles of conflict used in their sibling relationships” (Noller et al., 2008, p.7), having them report on each other’s’ behaviours, rather than their own. In addition, various inventories were used to assess self-esteem levels, and levels of depression and anxiety.

Results

Heidi Riggio’s research considered three variables when looking at the results; socioeconomic status, remarriage, and participant’s sex. The effects of parental conflict on social outcomes was “partially supported, indicating that young adults from high-conflict families reported lower independence and emotional support” (Riggio, 2004, p.105), particularly with the paternal relationship. Likewise, those from low-conflict families reported high levels. Riggio (2004) notes that, consistent with her second hypothesis, individuals from divorced families reported lower levels of emotional support from fathers, as compared to those from intact families (p.106). In contrast, this research found a positive effect of parental divorce on relationships with mothers. There was a significant positive correlation between the quality of the relationship the child had with both parents, compared to the available social support systems (p.107). Further, there was found to be a negative impact on anxiety levels, based on the supports available to divorced families.

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Noller et al.’s findings were similar to Riggio’s, when looking at the levels of conflict. Not surprisingly, their research reported “significantly more conflict at times of separation and divorce” (Noller et al., 2008, p.9), as compared to those in intact marriages. They considered the family type, as the independent variable, and the items of conflict measures, as the dependent variables. As hypothesized, there were higher levels of parent-child conflict in families undergoing separation or divorce, as well as higher levels of sibling conflict- notably, it was reported that the siblings disclosed “more use of n attacking style of conflict with their sibling than those in the married sample.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.11). Their sample was divided into high- and low-conflict groups, with a median of 33; a series of regression analyses were conducted to consider youth adjustment levels as the dependent variable. As noted, Noller et al. used different reporters to prevent bias for the dependent and independent variables (p.11). Further, their research confirmed lower levels of psychological adjustment for those in high-conflict families. A series of interviews were conducted with the children participants, which showed a significant lapse in conflict, once the divorce or separation had taken place. However, there were reported instances where “the initial postseparation period was highly conflicted, the next stage was relatively peaceful, and conflict suddenly erupted again.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.13).

Discussion

Riggio emphasizes the importance of understanding how divorce can impact the family dynamic. She also suggests that, as “societal acceptance of divorce increases,” (p.108) the outcomes for children of divorce may change. She notes the following; “current results are consistent with previous studies indicating independent effects of parental divorce and conflict on young adult outcomes.” (Riggio, 2004, p.108) It is also important to consider variables such as sex and socioeconomic status when trying to make meaning of these experiences for adolescents. Riggio outlines various positive outcomes for children of divorced parents including; (a) significant improvement in mother-child relationships; (b) a marked independence into young adulthood; (c) greater perceived social supports; and (d) significantly lower anxiety levels about personal relationships.

Noller et al.’s work captures the importance of minimizing parental conflict pre- and post-divorce. Across the three studied relationships (spousal, parent-child, and sibling), higher levels of conflict were reported across the board in divorcing families, and this was not found to decrease over time (Noller et al., 2008). Their findings supported the notion that the level of family conflict had a greater impact than the structure of the family itself. Interestingly, “the lowest levels of adjustment across all three measures (self-esteem, anxiety, depression) were for those in the high-conflict divorcing families.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.21) It is further discussed that the conflicts that take place post-divorce, in relation to the children, tend to be just as impactful, referred to as “an ongoing climate of conflict.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.21).

Limitations and Recommendations

Riggio discussed three major limitations to her research study; the first pertaining to access. Due to legal custody arrangements, it was not always possible to obtain regular input from non-custodial parents.  Further, the lessened contact between non-custodial parent and child likely has a negative effect on the responses from the child. She recommends that future research should seek to demonstrate how the relationship between child and parent is impacted by lack of access. Secondly, Riggio suggested an inconsistency with the reporting of parental conflict from the child’s perspective (Riggio, 2004, p.111) The validity of such feedback is challenged by lack of accurate recollection, unconscious biases, and perception- all are challenges with self-reporting instruments. Thirdly, Riggio conducted this research with a cohort of young adults enrolled in postsecondary institutions. This automatically eliminates anyone whose socioeconomic status does not afford them the opportunity for such education. She suggests that future research be conducted using a broader span of young adults, from various walks of life.

Noller et al. used a sample of families currently embroiled in the Family Court system. They acknowledge that by doing so, “could lead to the oversampling of divorcing families who are experiencing considerable conflict.” (Noller et al., 2008, p.22) Additionally, they found that many family members did not wish to participate, thus ensuring validity was a challenge. It is recommended that clinicians be cognizant of the far-reaching impact divorce has on all family members, and in particular, the children.

Conclusion

Both research articles placed a great emphasis on how the level of conflict, both pre- and post-divorce, has a great impact on the children in the household. With rising divorce rates, it is imperative that the well-being of the children remains at the forefront of the parental interactions, no matter how contentious the relationship. The potential for long-term implications on children’ mental health is ever-present, and there needs to be a focus on how to mitigate the negative impact divorce will have on them in adulthood.

I feel that both set of hypotheses were reasonably produced; I would tend to agree with the findings that the sample could, and should, be expanded to explore how divorce impacts children from various levels of upbringing, and perhaps the implementation of more stringent wording in the questionnaires, in terms of content, would help alleviate any ambiguity- particularly with the children respondents. With regards to policy, it would be beneficial for all parties to be required to attend family counselling, both pre- and post-divorce, to facilitate a meaningful, healing experience for everyone involved. I am sure something of this nature exists, but perhaps it would be of benefit to make this a mandatory practice.

References

  • Noller, P., et al. (2008). Conflict in Divorcing and Continuously Married Families: A Study of Marital Parent-Child nd Sibling Relationships. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 49(1/2), 1-24.
  • Riggio, H. (2004). Parental Marital Conflict and Divorce, Parent-Child Relationships, Social Support, and Relationship Anxiety in Young Adulthood. Personal Relationships, 11, 99-114.

 



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