Academic journal article Family Relations

Risk and Protective Factors in Young Children's Adjustment to Parental Divorce: A Review of the Research

Academic journal article Family Relations

Risk and Protective Factors in Young Children's Adjustment to Parental Divorce: A Review of the Research

Article excerpt

This article reviews the literature on parental divorce and early childhood development, using developmental psychopathology as an organizing framework. With respect to young children, three questions are addressed: How does parental divorce affect developmental outcomes? What risk and protective factors influence adaptation? How does early parental divorce affect later adjustment? Because thin review is unique in its focus on divorce-related issues specific to young children, limitations of existing research are noted and directions for future research are suggested.

Key Words: development, divorce, preschool age, psychopathology, young children.

The process of divorce brings about many changes in children's lives, such as changes in contact with each parent and changes in parental emotions and behavior. Of concern here is how these changes might affect development in early childhood. Research shows that divorce may increase the risk of negative outcomes for older children, although most children who experience parental divorce adjust well (Amato, 2001). According to 2000 census data, 28% of divorced or separated parents had at least one child under the age of 6 (Fields & Casper, 2001). The developing social and cognitive abilities of preschool children and their greater dependency on their parents compared with older children may lead to different responses to parental divorce than those seen in older children (Hetherington, Stanley-Hagan, & Anderson, 1989). For example, preschool-age children may be more likely to feel responsible for their parents' divorce and to fear abandonment and separations than are older children (Wallerstein, 1983). However, little attention has been given to the developmental outcomes associated with parental divorce for these younger children.

Most research on children's adjustment to parental divorce has focused on school-age children, despite the argument of some researchers (e.g., Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000) that early childhood may be a sensitive period, when major family changes may have a greater impact than they would at later ages. Other scholars have argued that parental divorce does not have more negative effects on children of a particular age but that differential effects can be seen at different developmental stages (e.g., Hetherington et al., 1989). Despite the fact that this remains a debated issue in the literature, other reviews (e.g. Amato, 2000; Kelly, 2000) lack in-depth attention to research on young children's adjustment to divorce and how it may be different or similar to that of older children.

The purpose of this article is to better understand how parental divorce relates to development in early childhood. First, a review of both qualitative and quantitative research on outcomes associated with parental divorce in early childhood is offered, followed by a comparison of research on outcomes associated with parental divorce for preschool-age children and research on outcomes for older children. Then research on risk and protective factors that may influence young children's adjustment to parental divorce is presented, with attention to the issue of whether the same risk and protective factors influence younger and older children's adjustment to divorce. Finally, research on how parental divorce in early childhood is related to later developmental outcomes is reviewed. The developmental psychopathology framework is used to organize the research findings and to suggest implications for research and practice.

Theoretical Framework and Criteria for Study Selection

Developmental psychopathology provides a useful framework for understanding how parental divorce may affect adaptation in early childhood for several reasons. First, developmental psychopathologists highlight the importance of considering one's developmental level to understand adaptation to a major life change (Cicchetti, 1993). This perspective emphasizes the importance of understanding how young children's developmental abilities and limitations affect their adaptation to parental divorce. …

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