This paper summarizes the argument and findings of a longer and more technical paper that won the 2007 Graduate Student Paper Award in Social Demography from the Section on Population of the American Sociological Association.
Many research studies have shown that, on average, children of divorce have more behavior problems than children growing up in two-parent families. Divorces are sensitive situations so those that are going through it may want to use the services of someone like a chicago divorce lawyer to help them through this difficult process. It’s a good idea to involve a lawyer as things might get a little heated and this can have a huge effect on your family. There are loads of lawyers out there that you can use, so you just have to find the right one for you. This might mean that you use someone like this Russel Family Law firm, or you might use someone else. All that matters is that things run as smoothly as possible. But the question for social scientists is whether the problems seen in the children of divorced parents were caused by the divorce, or whether something else caused BOTH the divorce and the children’s problems.
Researchers wonder, in particular, whether some couples have personal characteristics and/or parenting patterns that increase the chance that their children will have behavior problems AND ALSO increase the chance that the couple will be unable to resolve marital issues. If this “something else” causes both divorce and behavior problems, then it is likely that that children would still have had problems even if their parents had somehow managed to remain married.
How do we look for that “something else”? We know that it is a mistake to compare children of divorced parents with children of continuously-married parents without taking into account differences between divorcing families and continuously married families PRIOR to the marital disruption. Parents who are more likely to divorce may also be more likely to be impoverished, to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to be less educated, to have been raised in divorced families themselves, or to have more children than average. These factors may impair a child’s well-being whether the parents stay together or not, but also be more likely to produce a marital disruption.
To test the effect of pre-existing family characteristics versus the effect of divorce itself, prior studies have used statistical analysis to “control” for the differences we can see between divorced and continuously-married families prior to the disruption. This is done by taking into account the socioeconomic status of the parents, their race or ethnicity, and other “variables” that can be determined by having respondents fill out a paper or computerized questionnaire. Some studies also take into account prior differences in child well-being between the two types of families prior to the disruption. The old consensus is that taking these pre-existing factors into account helps explain some of the association between parental divorce and children’s behavior problems – but not all. It reduces the average difference between the two groups but still leaves some average deficits for children of divorce, deficits that are not explained by controlling for these observed differences.
But what about the unique characteristics of each family that we do not as yet have the tools to measure? Things such as personality, parenting strategies, and detailed aspects of a person’s biography all affect children, but researchers haven’t been able to measure many of these constructs, far less to include them in large-scale studies. Therefore many studies end up comparing apples and oranges. The proper test of the impact of divorce on children is not to compare the children of divorced parents to the children of continuously-married families, and thus risk ignoring all the unobservable factors that may lead both to greater behavioral problems and to higher chances of divorce. It works better to compare the behavior problems of the same child before and after divorce. So, traditional methods often do not adequately estimate the impact on children of being in a family that is headed for divorce.
Several recent studies, including one of my own, which use more advanced and sophisticated research methods, present a powerful challenge to the old consensus that the average impact of divorce on children is negative. These studies are able to eliminate the impact of both “observable” and “unobservable” family differences that result in variations in child outcome, independent of divorce, and this provides a more accurate estimate of the “true” impact of divorce.
All these new studies have discovered the same thing: The average impact of divorce in society at large is to neither increase nor decrease the behavior problems of children. These studies suggest that divorce, in and of itself, is not the cause of the elevated behavior problems we see in children of divorce. They include Aughinbaugh, Pierret, and Rothstein (2005), Foster and Kalil (2007), and Li (2007).
While previous studies have compared the outcomes of children whose parents divorced to those of children whose parents remained together, I use a longitudinal study that measures changes in the behavior of children whose parents were not divorced at the beginning of the study but who divorced later. This allows me to investigate the counterfactual question, “What would have happened to the children’s behavior if their parents had remained married?” For an example of how this method works, and why other methods tend to over-estimate the impact of divorce on children’s behavior problems, see the Appendix at the end of this report.
The data I used included all children born to a national representative sample of American women born between 1958 and 1965. These same women had been surveyed repeatedly since 1979, and their children had been surveyed since 1988. Forty-seven percent of these mothers in my sample had been divorced by 2002. I used a 28-item checklist to measure behavior problems for children between 4 and 15 years of age. Mothers in each of the biennial survey filled out a questionnaire about whether their child engaged in behaviors such as cheating, deliberately breaking things, crying or arguing frequently and so forth. The mother of an average boy reported 8.7 items and the mother of an average girl reported 7.8 items that are often or sometimes true.
My study included a national sample of 6,332 children. It revealed that the estimated effect of a parental divorce on children’s behavior problems is so small that fewer than half of the divorced mothers would observe a one-item increase in the 28-item BPI checklist of their child. This is not a statistically significant effect.
Why would I get this result when other carefully-constructed studies, which controlled for observed differences, found larger, and statistically significant effects of divorce? The kind of observed differences that show up in surveys may fail to catch subtle differences between families that eventually divorce and those who do not. For example, certain aspects of child temperament and behavior are associated with parental personality traits that may be hereditary. If a child has parents with difficult temperaments and divorce-prone personality traits, the child will likely exhibit greater behavior problems whether or not the parents divorce, but the child will also be exposed to a higher risk of parental divorce. Or take the fact that the resources parents are able and willing to provide for their children may vary dramatically across marriages and across divorces. If so, there may be “good” parents and “bad” parents, as well as “good” spouses and “bad” spouses. It is plausible that a “bad” spouse may well have been a “bad” parent prior to marital disruption (and may, thus, have been a factor in causing the disruption).
Disengaged or unloving parents are detrimental for children’s emotional well-being and behavior. The lack of love on the part of one or both parents may increase the chance that the parents will divorce, but it may also create behavior problems in children whether or not their parents divorce. If so, we should not attribute the worse behavior of their children to the divorce itself, but to the impact of the unloving parent or parents. The point is that “bad” marriages are more likely to harm children’s well-being than good ones AND more likely to lead to divorce, and a marriage can be “bad” in many unobserved ways.
I am not saying that divorce doesn’t increase the behavior problems of some children, because I have focused only on the “average effect of divorce for the divorced.” It is possible that the dissolution of some marriages decreases some children’s behavior problems and the dissolution of others increases children’s behavior problems, so that they cancel each other out, creating the zero effect that I found when I totaled the average effect of divorce. However, for this to be true, one must admit that while certain divorces harm children, others benefit them. My findings contradict the widely-accepted claim that MOST divorces increase children’s behavior problems and that only a tiny minority of divorces do NOT.
It should be noted that my findings are only relevant to the kind of marriages where parents have qualities that make them likely to divorce. They should not be interpreted to imply that breaking up a randomly selected marriage in society would not lead to increased behavior problems for the children. But these findings do imply that to help children of divorce, social scientists and policy-makers should seek to understand and intervene in the processes both before and after a marriage comes apart, rather than seeking to simply prevent the divorce from occurring.
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The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners.
Founded in 1996 and now based in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met. To fulfill that mission, the Council holds annual conferences, open to the public, and issues periodic briefing papers and fact sheets.Topics: Child Welfare / Couples Conflict, Separation & Divorce