Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Predictive Factors of Psychological Effects on Children of Divorced Parents

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. In this case it is the final report from a psychology course I took last year. It's my hope that posting my academic works will help others. As always, I warn against plagiarism, as it will be incredibly easy to uncover since this paper is published online and was submitted in class as well. Another warning is that I am not an expert in this field. This is my work as a student doing research, and this report should be viewed as such.

The Issue

The dissolution of a marriage can be a traumatic, stressful series of events with psychological implications for all parties involved. Much of the focus during this process rests on the adults, but often children are involved and can be greatly affected by these events. What are the long-term consequences for children after the stress of marital dissolution? What is the nature of these consequences? Is it possible to identify children who will be impacted negatively by their parents’ divorce? The focus of this report will be the lasting effects on children of divorced parents, with a special focus on predicting negative effects based on qualitative factors. This information can be helpful in assessing the risk of long-term negative psychological effects on children and providing proper remedial counseling.

Summary of Internet Information

It is well understood that parental divorce can be difficult for children. This difficulty is believed to manifest itself as stress and psychological pain, and rarely as clinical problems such as depression.  Even without the manifestation of long-term clinical problems, children can be significantly affected by parental divorce with effects lasting into adulthood. The negative consequences for these children include behavioral, emotional, and academic problems (Amato, 2010; Featherstone & Cundick, 1992; Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007). Many of these problems stem from either the after-effects of the short-term stress of divorce or from recurring stress due to continuing family conflict. The state of the family unit before, during and after divorce may be the most important factor in determining the effect on children (Amato, 2010; Fincham, 1998). Important aspects of family relations include the psychological state of the parents, parents’ relationship, and attachment to parents.
The family environment before divorce can be informative in determining outcomes for children. The period before divorce is often the most contentious part of the marriage. During this period children are more likely to have lowered academic performance and exhibit anxiety, depression or antisocial behavior (Amato, 2010). Research indicates that children may experience positive psychological effects when parental separation ends a highly stressful situation at home. A child that is not experiencing stress before separation is more likely to experience stress and emotional pain after the dissolution (Amato, 2010).
The quality of life after divorce, measured by economic and emotional factors, can also have significant effects. Research shows that children of single parent households have lower performance academically and lower socioeconomic status later in life (Featherstone & Cundick, 1992; Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007). However, remarriage or shared custody may not positively influence the child’s situation; instead these events often lead to continuing levels of increased stress (Amato, 2010). Remarriage, in particular, may not help because a high percentage of second marriages also end in divorce.
Parental attachment and influence plays a vital role in children’s adjustment to life after dissolution. When a child has a stronger attachment to the parent without custody there may be increased stress levels and longer periods of adjustment after marriage dissolution (Videon, 2002). There may also be disadvantages for children when the same-sex parent leaves the household. In this respect, gender could be considered a factor, as the parent departing the household is typically the father (Fincham, 1998). In cases of shared custody there is often concern over the child’s ability to form secure attachments to both parents (Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little, 2003).
The age of the child at the time of divorce can affect the development of attachment and academic performance. Divorce, and the increased stress and conflict surrounding it, can disrupt important developmental stages of young children. Young children are less likely to properly understand the divorce and are more likely to have difficulty adjusting afterwards (Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little, 2003). Older children may understand the marital conflict better, but they are also susceptible to related stressors. In Featherstone & Cundick (1992), family disruptions were found to lower several academic performance factors in teens. Similarly, Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) found a causal relationship between union dissolution and academic performance in teens. This later study found a lowered desire and expectation to attend college for children of divorced parents.
Other factors for determining child outcomes after divorce are also under consideration and in research. Amato (2010) details recent research on genetic models to predict child adjustment after divorce. This research attempts to prove that child outcomes are dependent on heritable traits that are often demonstrated by one or both parents during divorce. More ambiguously, Amato (2010) notes that several studies have attempted to find evidence of a causal relationship between child outcomes and race or culture. The article notes no strong findings in any one direction.

Summary of the Research Study

In The Effect of Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Parental Separation on Adolescent Well-Being conducted by Tami Videon in 2002, data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) was analyzed to assess changes in delinquent behavior and depression among adolescents after divorce. In the study, a subset of data from Add Health Wave I and Wave II was compared. This subset was formed of adolescents living with both biological parents as of Wave I who were still living with at least one biological parent as of Wave II, and restricted to only children of Black, Hispanic, or White race. Of these respondents, there were 203 who experienced parental separation between the two waves. The study measured independent variables of parental separation, parent-child relationships, and demographic characteristics (such as age, race, and parental education), with dependent variables of delinquent behavior and depression. Results for boys and girls were calculated separately. The study found that divorce alone was not a predictor for increased likelihood of negative outcomes. Instead, the parental relationship of both the residential and nonresidential parent after separation has a correlation with child well being. Specifically, for boys a strong relationship with the father before divorce predicts an increased likelihood of delinquent behavior, but the maternal relationship is more highly correlated with depression. Girls displayed similar results for delinquent behavior, in that some increase was noted in connection to the paternal relationship, but depression was found to have a stronger correlation. This indicates a very clear set of factors that can influence a child’s outcome after divorce.
The study Parents’ Union Dissolution and Adolescents’ School Performance: Comparing Methodological Approaches (Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007) also uses data from Add Health, including the Wave III data, to analyze the effects of parental divorce on academic achievement and review new predictive statistical models. Similarly to Videon (2002), a subset of data was selected using the criteria that students in the Wave I survey lived with two resident parents, that the parents completed the in-home component of the survey, that all components of the Wave II survey were also completed and the student still resided with at least one biological parent. The respondent data was further limited to students only in grades 9 through 11 as of Wave I of the survey, resulting in a final count of 2,629 respondents including 60 students who experienced union dissolution between waves. Unlike Videon, this study also included Wave III data from Add Health, which includes data from the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement Study, giving this study insight into academic performance. Instead of further limiting the respondent data to only those who completed the first three waves of the survey, the study uses statistical models to calculate the propensity from Wave I and Wave II data that a child will experience union dissolution and apply that likelihood to the academic results. Three statistical models were used to compare the results and confirm consistency. This allows researchers to predict academic outcome using a smaller, representative dataset.
The primary dependent variable in Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) is academic achievement, which is measured using change scores of students’ mathematical course work completed, GPA, and course failures. The primary independent variable is parents’ union dissolution. The results of the study show that parents’ union dissolution has a causal relationship with lowered GPA and increased course failures, but does not cause a significant change in mathematical course work completion. This indicates a short-term affect on academic performance with long-term consequences, as these lowered grades during high school can affect future academic and occupational performance.

Critical Analysis of Internet Information and Research Study

Both Amato (2010) and Fincham (1998) are overviews of then current research on child development in relation to marital status. Fincham is instructive in that it is a very detailed analysis of not only the then current research, but also the methodology and its application. However, this article is not always useful in forming conclusions, and much of the research included is out-of-date. Amato’s article is a more recent summary of the trends and results produced in this area of research. This summary is not nearly as detailed as Fincham, but it covers a wide range of research topics with an informed analysis of recent studies and comes to an important conclusion: marriage dissolution does affect children and the majority of research going forward will focus on the types of effects and their scale.
 The research selected for this report highlights two decades of data supporting the theory that parental divorce affects child well being. The oldest study included is Featherstone & Cundick (1992), which helps to establish a relationship between family structure and academic performance. The primary finding of the Featherstone study is a strong correlation between single parent or reconstituted families and decreased academic performance. A problem with this study is that it was not conducted on a representative population sample, which could mean that similar studies on other geographic or demographic populations may not yield supporting results. Also, the behavioral data is compiled from teachers’ observational coding, the composure of which is not divulged in the study. Still, the core finding of affected GPA is strongly represented and confirmed in other research such as Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007).
Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little (2003) uses data from Connecticut families already involved in union dissolution proceedings. The respondents in this survey may suffer from some selection bias, as Family Court and Family Services professionals initiated their inclusion. Their demographics match that of their locality, but do not match national demographic numbers. The model used in this study is quite complex, studying the interaction of many variables at once and drawing many causal conclusions on this data. Strong conclusions include the effects on parental relationships and parental health to child outcomes.
Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) and Videon (2002) use the same basic data, the Add Health survey. This gives both studies a solid base of a large, representative dataset. The most obvious problem with the source data is the low probability of marriage dissolution between waves. This limits the amount of information one is able to obtain from this data. For example, Frisco, Muller, & Frank notes that the remaining sample was not large enough to consider race or gender in their study. In Videon we must consider that the research is not supported by much prior work of the same nature, however some findings are supported by Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little (2003). Even with these considerations these studies draw strong conclusions on solid statistical models.


The effects of marital dissolution on children are well documented with mounting evidence over the last twenty years. There is strong evidence that divorce can affect academic performance on a short-term basis, and moderate evidence that these children may experience long-term negative academic consequences. Research indicates that these children may experience depression or an increase in delinquent behavior. Young children are also vulnerable to attachment disorders as a result of union dissolution, though more research should be conducted in this area. Some of these direct effects of parental divorce may only last a short amount of time, but they can disturb key phases of development with lasting consequences.
Knowing how children are affected by divorce is only a step in determining why children are affected in these ways. Evidence points to parental conflict and the timing thereof as influential on child outcome in several ways, including academic performance. The family structure after divorce also has strong causal links to several factors of child well being. Some research shows that parent-child relationships with both the residential and nonresidential parents are related to child outcome.
After establishing the likelihood of a negative outcome, remedial action is easier to plan. More research is necessary to determine whether any of these effects can be countered, and by what means. This research could be instructive not only to psychologists, but also in the policy of family law.


Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00723.x
Featherstone, D. R., & Cundick, B. P. (1992). Differences in school behavior and achievement between children from intact, reconstituted, and.. Adolescence, 27(105), 1. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Fincham, F. D. (1998). Child development and marital relations. Child Development, 69(2), 543. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Frisco, M. L., Muller, C., & Frank, K. (2007). Parents’ Union Dissolution and Adolescents’ School Performance: Comparing Methodological Approaches. Journal of Marriage & Family, 69(3), 721-741. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00402.x
Pruett, M., Williams, T. Y., Insabella, G., & Little, T. D. (2003). Family and legal indicators of child adjustment to divorce among families with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(2), 169-180. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.17.2.169
Videon, T. M. (2002). The Effects of Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Parental Separation on Adolescent Well-Being. Journal of Marriage & Family, 64(2), 489-503. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.