Fifteen children of recently separated or divorced parents completed a family systems intervention with their custodial parent for purposes of reducing family conflict and improving classroom behavior. A paired-samples t-test indicated significantly improved use of verbal reasoning (p < .01) and significantly reduced use of verbal aggression (p < .01) from pretest to 6-months follow-up when resolving family conflicts as reported by participating students. No significant reduction in physical aggression was noted. Teacher observations indicated significant improvement in classroom behavior from the time of initial referral to completion of intervention (p < .05).
More than a third of American children experience their parents' divorce before reaching 18, and under many circumstances, the effects of divorce can have immediate and long-lasting consequences. With more than one million divorces occurring every year (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996), divorce has become a frequent occurrence in American society.
The negative effects of parental divorce upon children depend upon many factors, including the age and sex of the child at the time of the marital dissolution, the amount of conflict within the family unit, and the degree of cooperation between the divorced or separated parents (Dacey & Travers, 2002). Each of these factors, alone and in interaction with each other, influences the psychological health of the child and the ability of the child to do well at school.
The manner by which parents interact with each other, both before and after the divorce, may have a far greater impact on children than the actual divorce itself (Hetherington, Stanley-Hagan & Anderson, 1989; Hines, 1997). Indeed, it is often difficult to separate the effects of divorce from the effects of a conflictual family relationship. In this manner, the negative effects of divorce may stem from pre-existing differences in the family unit prior to the divorce itself, and these negative effects may be more related to the emotional separation that precedes the legal divorce.
In general, children who have recently experienced a family dissolution have a more difficult time with academic and social expectations at school than children from intact families or established single-parent or blended families (Carlson, 1995). However, there is much variability in children's adjustment to parental divorce. Under some circumstances, children of divorce show only small negative effects that are limited in time; and in a few circumstances, children show resilience in adjusting to the effects of parental divorce. Indeed, children who thrive well in family dissolution are more likely to report living in homes characterized by family support and parental control (Dacey & Travers, 2002).
What are the circumstances of children' s successful adjustment to parental divorce? Children do better when parents provide consistent and coordinated co-parenting in which they monitor their children and provide them with nurturance and discipline (Carlson, 1995; Hines, 1997). Such co-parenting requires a problem-solving approach in which the separated parents hide their own conflicts from children and avoid putting children in the middle of parental disagreements. After the divorce, effective co-parenting requires a business-like relationship in which parents avoid criticizing each other in front of their children.
Despite such resilience, many children of divorce experience intense, short-term effects that negatively impact upon their school performance; and a few children carry long-lasting effects into their own adulthood that seriously impair their ability to develop and maintain a long-lasting relationship (Wallerstein, 1988; Wallerstein & Corbin, 1999). For these children, witnessing the conflict of parental divorce represents a critical life passage of emotional stressors that predispose them to much vulnerability (Thompson, 1998). …