Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Divorce Process and Young Children's Well-Being: A Prospective Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Divorce Process and Young Children's Well-Being: A Prospective Analysis

Article excerpt

Despite ample evidence that children from divorced families have more behavioral, emotional, health, and academic problems than children in intact families (e.g., Amato, 1994; Amato & Keith, 1991), the mechanisms by which marital disruption affects children are not well understood (Chase-Lansdale & Hetherington, 1990; Kurdek, 1993). Increasingly, marital dissolution is viewed by researchers not as a single event, but rather as a multistage process of family change. The conflict and difficulties that lead to divorce are usually set in motion well before the family actually separates, and when disruption does occur, the roughly 2 to 3 years that follow have been described as a "crisis period" characterized by dramatic changes in children's day-to-day lives (Chase-Lansdale Hetherington, 1990). Consequently, any effects of divorce on children may reflect not only the stress of the breakup and its aftermath, but also dysfunctional family processes, marital conflict, or children's problems that preceded the breakup.

Recent prospective studies have provided evidence that some of the observed effects of divorce are attributable to characteristics of children and families that predate the disruption. However, these studies tend to be based on children who experienced divorce in middle childhood or adolescence, and there is intriguing but inconsistent evidence that divorce may be more difficult for very young children than for older children (see Emery, 1988). Moreover, available prospective studies generally focus on children who had experienced disruption 2 years or more prior to the assessment of postdisruption well-being. By that time, many children may have recovered from the acute effects of the disruption.

The present study is an extension of existing. divorce outcome research. We use longitudinal data from the 1986 and 1989 waves of the Child Supplement of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to examine the consequences of divorce for children, accounting for predisruption factors that may explain the association between marital disruption and child well-being. However, we go beyond existing prospective studies in three ways. First, the children in our sample ranged in age from 3 to 13 in 1986, but two-thirds were ages 5 or younger. Because previous researchers have largely focused on older children, the present study contributes to our understanding of whether divorce is particularly harmful for younger children. Second, we begin or analysis with children in intact families and, 2 years later, when some families have subsequently disrupted, we examine effects of the divorce process on child well-being. This interval is shorter than the time frame of recent prospective studies and will illuminate the importance of the "crisis period" for children's adjustment. Finally, unlike existing studies, we examine how two potentially traumatic life changes that often coincide with disruption--downward mobility and altered parenting--mediate the effects of divorce. The outcomes we examine include children's behavior problems and academic achievement.


The fundamental premise of the present study is that divorce should be viewed as a process characterized by a sequence of potentially stressful experiences that begin before physical separation and continue after it. Because of the prospective nature of our data we ate able to take account of both pre- and postdisruption factors that affect children' s adjustment to marital disruption.

It is obviously difficult in practice to pinpoint the actual beginning and end of the divorce process. Does it begin when marital discord ensues, when the possibility of a divorce is raised, or when concrete plans for physical separation are underway? Does it end when the legal divorce is finalized or when a routine visitation pattern is established? Despite this complexity, there is heuristic utility in conceptualizing the process from the standpoint of predisruption and postdisruption phases. …

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