Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Environment and Adolescents' Well-Being before and after Parents' Marital Disruption: A Longitudinal Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Environment and Adolescents' Well-Being before and after Parents' Marital Disruption: A Longitudinal Analysis

Article excerpt

Although previous research has noted that children of divorce tend to fare less well than peers raised in families with two biological parents, much less is known about how parents' marital disruption affects children as a continuous process in its different phases. Based on two waves of a large, nationally representative panel, this study demonstrates that even before the disruption, both male and female adolescents from families that subsequently dissolve exhibit more academic, psychological, and behavioral problems than peers whose parents remain married. Families on the verge of breakup are also characterized by less intimate parent-parent and parentchild relationships, less parental commitment to children's education, and fewer economic and human resources. These differences in family environment account for most well-being deficits among adolescents in predisrupted families. Furthermore, the deterioration in different domains of the family environment appears to be associated with maladjustment in different aspects of children's lives. The postdisruption effects on adolescents can either be totally or largely predicted by predisruption factors and by changes in family circumstances during the period coinciding with the disruption. Finally, the analyses indicate that

female adolescents are as likely to be affected by the parental divorce process as male adolescents.

Key Words: child well-being, family environment, family structure, longitudinal analyses.

A substantial amount of family research has provided convincing evidence that children of divorce tend to experience more psychological, social, and academic difficulties than their peers raised in households with two biological parents (for reviews, see Amato, 1993; Demo & Acock, 1988). Much less is known about how parental divorce or separation affects children as a continuous process. Although recent longitudinal studies (e.g., Amato, Loomis, & Booth, 1995; Block, Block, & Gjerde, 1986; Cherlin et al., 1991; Doherty & Needle, 1991; Morrison & Cherlin, 1995) have suggested that deficits in children's well-being are observable before the disruption actually occurs, few studies have directly assessed the magnitude of such predisruption differences. In particular, relatively little has been done to examine empirically the mechanisms by which children are affected before and during family dissolution. Consequently, it is still unclear which specific familial features are responsible for signs of maladjustment during the predisruption period and whether changes in multiple domains of the family environment throughout the disruption process may be related to elevated problems after the disruption.

Using two waves of a nationally representative sample of American high school students (National Education Longitudinal Studies, 1988), this study tests a multistage model of parental divorce by examining a wide array of child well-being indicators, from both before and after parents' marital disruption. Drawing on previous research on the relationship between family environment and child outcomes, this study determines whether predisruption differences in three domains of family environment (interpersonal relations, parental involvement, and family resources) are related to children's well-being problems during the predisruption period. Finally, this study examines the extent to which predisruption factors and, in particular, changes in multiple dimensions of family environment between pre- and postdisruption stages, account for signs of children's maladjustment after family dissolution.


For decades, most family research has treated parental divorce as an isolated event that affects children only after its occurrence. Recently, family researchers have started to perceive marital disruption as a continuous, multistage process that may begin long before families dissolve and extend many years after divorce or separation (Demo & Acock, 1988; Morrison & Cherlin, 1995). …

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