Divorce Heavily Impacts
Children's Mental Health
Center for the Advancement of Health
Contact Sharlene A. Wolchik, PhD
How children perceive the events surrounding their parents' divorce can be as important to their own future psychological development as the stark facts of family breakup itself, new research has found.
A study reported in the January-February issue of Child Development is the first to test empirically the buffering and amplifying effects of biases that children bring to divorce-related events and situations, such as when their parents argue, their reduced contact with the parent who moves away, declines in their standard of living, and signs of depression in one or both parents.
Elizabeth Mazur, PhD, of Eastern Kentucky University and Sharlene A. Wolchik, PhD, and colleagues at Arizona State University tested 355 mothers and their 9- to 12-year-old children whose families had experienced divorce within the previous two years.
They found that children's negative biases were associated with mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety reported by the children themselves, and in the case of those who were 11 and 12 years old, problems of delinquency and aggression reported by their mothers.
Positive biases or illusions buffered the negative effects of the divorce events and reduced reports of delinquency and aggression, but the researchers caution that high levels of positive illusions may be maladaptive.
Strong negative appraisals of divorce-related events appeared to be an important determinant of the psychological development of the 11- and 12-year-olds, the scientists said. For children age 9 and 10, the strength or weakness of their negative biases had little effect on their psychological adjustment.
The research team suggested that children of divorced parents might benefit from a two-pronged intervention:
* Helping parents reduce the number of stressful divorce-related events. Children's post-divorce adjustment appears to be affected significantly by exposure to their parents arguing, saying bad things about each other, or talking about the other parent's dating habits. * Helping children decrease their negatively biased appraisals of divorce events and increase their positively biased appraisals. This, they suggest, is particularly important for pre-adolescents.
The researchers emphasized the importance of trying to shape the way children think about divorce-related stressors before teaching them specific ways of coping.