- 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
- 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.