Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Delayed Parental Divorce: How Much Do Children Benefit?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Delayed Parental Divorce: How Much Do Children Benefit?

Article excerpt

This study compares children who experienced divorce in childhood with those who were young adults when their parents divorced to differentiate between long-term effects of divorce resulting from preexisting factors, including the child's behavioral problems and psychological status as well as the family's economic circumstances, and those resulting from divorce itself We used National Child Development Study data on 11,409 British children born in 1958 and followed up until age 33. Children's long-term welfare appears to be linked both to conditions preceding and following the divorce event. The results point to some limitations of existing studies on divorce and suggest caution in drawing conclusions about average effects of divorce. The impact of divorce appears to be a complex blend of selection and socialization.

Key Words: adult outcomes, children, divorce, emotional well-being.

Over the past decade or so, research on the consequences of divorce for children has advanced both theoretically and methodologically, moving away from a simple model that depicts divorce as a single event to one that portrays it as a complex process (Cherlin et al., 1991; Elliott & Richards, 1991; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Social scientists have learned that divorce does not begin with the dissolution of a marriage but often involves a lengthy sequence of "predivorce" experiences, the effects of which may be as important for children's welfare as the separation itself. Moreover, children do not react uniformly to divorce but rather construe the transition differently depending on their age and developmental stage, their temperament, the way the process is managed by their parents, and the sequelae of the breakup, such as the economic impact or the amount of lingering conflict (Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Amato & Booth, 1997; Emery, 1999; Hetherington, Law, & O'Connor, 1997; Kiernan, 1997; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989).

Accordingly, many researchers have become increasingly wary about public discussions of divorce that treat it as an undifferentiated and uniform occurrence resulting in similar outcomes for all children (Blankenhorn, Bayme, & Elshtain, 1990; Whitehead, 1997). Providing a simple bottom line of how divorce affects children is not as easy or informative an exercise as was once believed, for the effects of divorce are both contingent and variable depending on family circumstances. Understanding the impact of divorce on children requires greater theoretical specification of these circumstances and methodological sophistication in measuring what about divorce alters certain children's developmental trajectories.

The single greatest challenge to answering the question of how divorce affects children is being able to sort out the conditions that lead couples to divorce and their potential effects on children from the consequences of marital dissolution itself. Divorce, as research has amply demonstrated, is far more likely to occur among couples with personal, social, and economic problems and to be preceded by troubled family relationships and parenting processes (Hernandez, 1992; Kiernan & Mueller, 1999; Levinger & Moles, 1979; Price & McHenry, 1988; White, 1990). The nonrandom nature of the divorcing population means that the effects of the precursors of divorce frequently are confused with its consequences. This selectivity may have led researchers in the past to exaggerate the effects of divorce by conflating preexisting differences among children in divorcing and intact families with the results of marital breakup (Cherlin et al., 1991; Furstenberg & Teitler, 1994, Kiernan, 1997).

This article uses a novel strategy to examine alternative ways of explaining the consequences of divorce. We pose a real-life counterfactual: Suppose parents in troubled relationships and family situations, who might otherwise divorce, were to stay together until their children were grown before separating. …

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