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Impact of Divorce on Children's Behavior Problems

CONTACT: Allen Li, Associate Director of the Population Research Center at the RAND Corporation; jli@rand.org; 310.393.0411 x 6694

This specific paper summarizes the argument as well as also findings of a longer as well as also more technical paper of which won the 2007 Graduate Student Paper Award in Social Demography by the Section on Population of the American Sociological Association.

Many research studies have shown of which, on average, children of divorce have more behavior problems than children growing up in two-parent families. although the question for social scientists will be whether the problems seen inside the children of divorced parents were caused by the divorce, or whether something else caused BOTH the divorce as well as also the children’s problems.

Researchers wonder, in particular, whether some couples have personal characteristics as well as also/or parenting patterns of which increase the chance of which their children will have behavior problems as well as also ALSO increase the chance of which the couple will be unable to resolve marital issues. If This specific “something else” causes both divorce as well as also behavior problems, then of which will be likely of which of which children would likely still have had problems even if their parents had somehow managed to remain married.

How do we look for of which “something else”? We know of which of which will be a mistake to compare children of divorced parents with children of continuously-married parents without taking into account differences between divorcing families as well as also continuously married families PRIOR to the marital disruption. Parents who are more likely to divorce may also be more likely to be impoverished, to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to be less educated, to have been raised in divorced families themselves, or to have more children than average. These factors may impair a child’s well-being whether the parents stay together or not, although also be more likely to produce a marital disruption.

To test the effect of pre-existing family characteristics versus the effect of divorce itself, prior studies have used statistical analysis to “control” for the differences we can see between divorced as well as also continuously-married families prior to the disruption. This specific will be done by taking into account the socioeconomic status of the parents, their race or ethnicity, as well as also additional “variables” of which can be determined by having respondents fill out a paper or computerized questionnaire. Some studies also take into account prior differences in child well-being between the two types of families prior to the disruption. The old consensus will be of which taking these pre-existing factors into account helps explain some of the association between parental divorce as well as also children’s behavior problems – although not all. of which reduces the average difference between the two groups although still leaves some average deficits for children of divorce, deficits of which are not explained by controlling for these observed differences.

although what about the unique characteristics of each family of which we do not as yet develop the tools to measure? Things such as personality, parenting strategies, as well as also detailed aspects of a person’s biography all affect children, although researchers haven’t been able to measure many of these constructs, far less to include them in large-scale studies. Therefore many studies end up comparing apples as well as also oranges. The proper test of the impact of divorce on children will be not to compare the children of divorced parents to the children of continuously-married families, thereby risk ignoring all the unobservable factors of which may lead both to greater behavioral problems as well as also to higher chances of divorce. of which works better to compare the behavior problems of the same child before as well as also after divorce. So, traditional methods often do not adequately estimate the impact on children of being in a family of which will be headed for divorce.

Several recent studies, including one of my own, which use more advanced as well as also sophisticated research methods, present a powerful challenge to the old consensus of which the average impact of divorce on children will be negative. These studies are able to eliminate the impact of both “observable” as well as also “unobservable” family differences of which result in variations in child outcome, independent of divorce, as well as also This specific provides a more accurate estimate of the “true” impact of divorce.

All these brand new studies have discovered the same thing: The average impact of divorce in society at large will be to neither increase nor decrease the behavior problems of children. These studies suggest of which divorce, in as well as also of itself, will be not the cause of the elevated behavior problems we see in children of divorce. They include Aughinbaugh, Pierret, as well as also Rothstein (2005), Foster as well as also Kalil (2007), as well as also Li (2007).

My study

While previous studies have compared the outcomes of children whose parents divorced to those of children whose parents remained together, I use a longitudinal study of which measures modifications inside the behavior of children whose parents were not divorced at the beginning of the study although who divorced later. This specific allows me to investigate the counterfactual question, “What would likely have happened to the children’s behavior if their parents had remained married?” For an example of how This specific method works, as well as also why additional methods tend to over-estimate the impact of divorce on children’s behavior problems, see the Appendix at the end of This specific report.

The data I used included all children born to a national representative sample of American women born between 1958 as well as also 1965. These same women had been surveyed repeatedly since 1979, as well as also their children had been surveyed since 1988. Forty-seven percent of these mothers in my sample had been divorced by 2002. I used a 28-item checklist to measure behavior problems for children between 4 as well as also 15 years of age. Mothers in each of the biennial survey filled out a questionnaire about whether their child engaged in behaviors such as cheating, deliberately breaking things, crying or arguing frequently as well as also so forth. The mother of an average boy reported 8.7 items as well as also the mother of an average girl reported 7.8 items of which are often or sometimes true.

My study included a national sample of 6,332 children. of which revealed of which the estimated effect of a parental divorce on children’s behavior problems will be so tiny of which fewer than half of the divorced mothers would likely observe a one-item increase inside the 28-item BPI checklist of their child. This specific will be not a statistically significant effect.

Why would likely I get This specific result when additional carefully-constructed studies, which controlled for observed differences, found larger, as well as also statistically significant effects of divorce? The kind of observed differences of which show up in surveys may fail to catch subtle differences between families of which eventually divorce as well as also those who do not. For example, certain aspects of child temperament as well as also behavior are associated with parental personality traits of which may be hereditary. If a child has parents with difficult temperaments as well as also divorce-prone personality traits, the child will likely exhibit greater behavior problems whether or not the parents divorce, although the child will also be exposed to a higher risk of parental divorce. Or take the fact of which the resources parents are able as well as also willing to provide for their children may vary dramatically across marriages as well as also across divorces. If so, there may be “not bad” parents as well as also “bad” parents, as well as “not bad” spouses as well as also “bad” spouses. of which will be plausible of which a “bad” spouse may well have been a “bad” parent prior to marital disruption (as well as also may, thus, have been a factor in causing the disruption).

Disengaged or unloving parents are detrimental for children’s emotional well-being as well as also behavior. The lack of love on the part of one or both parents may increase the chance of which the parents will divorce, although of which may also create behavior problems in children whether or not their parents divorce. If so, we should not attribute the worse behavior of their children to the divorce itself, although to the impact of the unloving parent or parents. The point will be of which “bad” marriages are more likely to harm children’s well-being than not bad ones as well as also more likely to lead to divorce, as well as also a marriage can be “bad” in many unobserved ways.

I am not saying of which divorce doesn’t increase the behavior problems of some children, because I have focused only on the “average effect of divorce for the divorced.” of which will be possible of which the dissolution of some marriages decreases some children’s behavior problems as well as also the dissolution of others increases children’s behavior problems, generating sure of which they cancel each additional out, creating the zero effect of which I found when I totaled the average effect of divorce. However, due to This specific to be true, one must admit of which while certain divorces harm children, others benefit them. My findings contradict the widely-accepted claim of which MOST divorces increase children’s behavior problems as well as also of which only a tiny minority of divorces do NOT.

of which should be noted of which my findings are only relevant to the kind of marriages where parents have qualities of which make them likely to divorce. They should not be interpreted to imply of which breaking up a randomly selected marriage in society would likely not lead to increased behavior problems for the children. although these findings do imply of which to help children of divorce, social scientists as well as also policy-makers should seek to understand as well as also intervene inside the processes both before as well as also after a marriage comes apart, rather than seeking to simply prevent the divorce by occurring.

Works Cited

Aughinbaugh, A., C.R. Pierret, as well as also D.S. Rothstein. 2005. “The Impact of Family Structure Transitions on Youth Achievement: Evidence by the Children of the NLSY79.” Demography 42:447-68

Foster, EM. as well as also A. Kalil. 2007. “Living Arrangements as well as also Children’s Development in Low-Income White, Black, as well as also Latino Families. Child Development 78:1657-74

Li, J-C. A. 2007. “The Kids are OK: Divorce as well as also Children’s Behavior Problems.” RAND Labor as well as also Population Working Paper, WR-489. Santa Monica, CA.

Appendix: How did I get my results?

Fixed-effects modeling, which will be often used by economists, also helps us to understand the complex behavior of people in families.

To understand my method, consider two children of divorced parents, where the divorces occurred when they were both age 9. Suppose we measure their behavior problems once every two years, as I in fact did using a much larger sample. Here will be a stylized example to illustrate conceptually how my method as well as also the traditional method would likely yield different results in assessing the impact of divorce on children’s behavior problems:

Age 4 6 8 10 12 14

Kid A 7 7 7 9 9 9 (parents divorced at age 9)

Kid B 8 8 8 8 8 8 (parents divorced at age 9)

For Kid A, the effect of divorce will be a 2-item increase on the behavior problem index; for Kid B, the effect will be 0.

at This specific point consider two more children whose parents are continuously married.

Age 4 6 8 10 12 14

Kid C 6 6 6 6 6 6 (parents not divorced, up to age 14+)

Kid D 4 4 4 4 4 4 (parents not divorced, up to age 14+)

The traditional estimate of the effect of divorce would likely take the average behavior problems of Kids A as well as also B (which will be 8), as well as also the average of Kids C as well as also D (which will be 5), as well as also then calculate the difference between the two averages. The difference between the kids inside the divorcing group as well as also the kids inside the non divorcing group would likely then be 3-item increase.

The brand new way of looking at This specific will be called a fixed-effects estimate. Instead of comparing the divorced kids to the kids by married families, I compare them to themselves, before as well as also after parental divorce. I do This specific by averaging the pre- as well as also post-divorce differences for Kids A (9-7=2) as well as also B (8-8=0). Hence, the fixed-effects estimate of the effect will be a 1-item increase in behavior problems, a much lower estimate of the impact of divorce.

Or consider another child, whose behavior had begun to deteriorate before the divorce (again at age 9) as well as also continued to do so afterwards:

Age 4 6 8 10 12 14

Kid E 6 7 8 9 10 11

Notice of which between age 4 as well as also 8, prior to the divorce, the child’s behavior problem went up by one every two years. Had the parents avoided the divorce, we would likely have expected of which the child’s behavior problems continued to improve at the same rate. In additional words, if the trajectory of a child’s behavior problems stayed its predisruption course after the divorce, we should not claim of which there will be any impact of divorce because of which will be what would likely have happened had the parents remained married. This specific example also illustrates another subtle point of which even the previous fixed-effects estimate may overstate the impact of divorce if the unobserved factors operate in a way of which modifications the level of child well-being although does not alter the trajectory in child well-being. Consider how we calculate the fixed-effects estimate by taking the difference between the pre- as well as also post-divorce averages: The estimated effect will be (9+10+11)/3 – (6+7+8)/3 = 10-7 = 3 under the fixed-effects specification, whereas under the “random-trends” specification controlling for dynamic selection [ugh, technical], the estimated effect will be 0.

Allen Li presented more of his findings at the 11th annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, in a panel entitled “Should They Stay or Should They Go?” The conference, “Family Issues in Contention,” was held on April 25th as well as also 26th at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

RESPONSES as well as also additional PERSPECTIVES

Philip A. Cowan, Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley
pcowan@berkeley.edu, 510.643.5608

Li’s paper remind us of which the potential negative impact of divorce on children always has to be evaluated in light of the negative impact of distressed relationships on children of couples who stay together. Philip Cowan as well as also Carolyn Cowan have completed three longitudinal studies of which focus on couple relationships as well as also children’s development. One of the main findings of these studies will be of which in both married as well as also cohabiting couples, high, unresolved conflict or relationships low in warmth as well as also communication play a detrimental role inside the development of children by ages 5-14. although for many couples, these negative patterns can be lessened. In our studies, preventive interventions for parents not showing major distress at the beginning have resulted in long-term benefits for mothers as well as also fathers as well as also also for the children.

Robert E. Emery, Professor of Psychology, Director of the Center for Children, Families, as well as also the Law, University of Virginia
ree@virginia.edu, 434.924.0671

Divorce does not occur at random, as well as also Li will be correct of which when we take characteristics of which increase the risk for divorce into account, This specific reduces differences in psychological adjustment when comparing children by married as well as also divorced families. My colleagues as well as also I have also been concerned about these “selection” effects, so we have studied thousands of twins (as well as also their children) in several investigations to control not only for family as well as also social background although also for genetics. Our twin design also reduces the presumed effects of divorce on children, although unlike Li’s findings, differences between children by married as well as also divorced families remain statistically significant. Of equal importance, in additional research we have found of which, while children by divorced families generally do not suffer by psychological *problems,* they do experience much more extensive psychological *pain,* including difficult memories as well as also ongoing concerns about the fallout of divorce. For example, graduations as well as also weddings can be turned into anxiety-ridden events for children whose parents are divorced as well as also still do not get along. On an even more painful note, many young people whose parents have divorced also report doubting their fathers’ love, a particularly painful experience.

Constance Ahrons, Professor of Sociology, Emerita, University of Southern California
constance@ahrons.com, 858.274.8943

This specific study adds to similar findings showing of which, on average, children’s behavior problems usually attributed to divorce actually pre-date the parental divorce. although the study should not be interpreted to say divorce has no effect on children as as well as also after of which occurs. Rather of which shows of which divorce must be understood in a broader context, by highlighting the systemic process of which the divorce will be although one point in time. The findings by my Binuclear Family Study, a 20-year longitudinal study of 98 post-divorce families, clearly show of which what mattered most to children was how their parents got along after the divorce. Interviews with 173 children 20 years after their parents’ divorce revealed of which when divorced parents were able to maintain a civil, low-conflict as well as also sometimes cooperative relationship with one another, the children experienced no long-term problems associated with the divorce. However, when parents remained embroiled in conflict or totally disengaged by one another, their children continued to be distressed even 20 years later. We need to stop blaming “the divorce” for children’s problems as well as also start helping parents understand how their behavior before as well as also after divorce impacts their children, as well as also learn how they can reduce their children’s stress.

Virginia Rutter, Professor of Sociology, Framingham State College
vrutter@gmail.com, 508.626.4863

The fixed effects product Li uses suggests of which predisruption effects are the only factor in why some tiny although significant percentage of children of divorce do worse than children in continuously married families–at least through age 14. although we don’t know what those predisruption effects are. Li speculates of which of which will be personality or hereditary factors. In looking at the detailed examination of what causes marital distress of which leads to divorce, of which makes more sense to me to consider how complex challenges of which people face in their lives–challenges of which stem by the environment–may help to account for those predisruption effects. A complex series of negative life events as well as also stresses in one’s biography may make both parenting–as well as also getting along with one’s partner–more challenging. I don’t think we have cause to say there will be a “divorce gene” or some people who are just “bad spouses” or “bad parents”: a host of sociological as well as also psychological research helps us piece together how all the complicated details of one’s biography can lead to some sad situations in divorcing families, even for parents who are doing their best.

Betsey Stevenson as well as also Justin Wolfers, Professors of Business as well as also Public Policy, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
betseys@wharton.upenn.edu, 215.898.3019

In assessing the impact of divorce, disentangling causation by correlation can be a difficult, as well as also sometimes impossible, job. For instance, we know of which divorced people are more likely to drink, use drugs, have lower income, as well as also are less happy. although did divorce cause these bad things or did these bad things in fact cause the divorce? For example, when a man will be laid-off, the couple will be more likely to divorce in subsequent years. additional research has shown of which the happiest people are the most likely to get married, while those divorcing are less happy than the average married person. Moreover, people who divorce are actually happier a few years after the divorce compared with their happiness inside the years prior to the divorce.

Li’s paper argues of which much research on divorce overstates its personal costs for children. On April 15, a coalition of family values groups released a report of which overstated the economic costs of divorce to taxpayers by adding up the costs, while ignoring the benefits. The report estimated of which divorce as well as also unwed motherhood costs the U.S. taxpayer $112 billion per year. although the research by Ananat as well as also Michael (2008) of which they rely on actually shows of which divorce helps the financial situation of almost as many women as of which hurts, as well as also among those who gain, the gains are larger than the losses among those who lose. This specific report counts up the costs to the taxpayer by the women who lose income, although refuses to count even just one dollar of the rise in taxes or the decrease in poverty linked to those who gained income. To assess the consequences of divorce we need to consider the benefits as well as the costs. Our research has shown of which generating divorce easier through the implementation of unilateral divorce laws led to a 8-16 percent decline in female suicide, roughly a 30 percent decline in domestic violence for both men as well as also women, as well as also a 10 percent decline in females murdered by their partners.

Jennifer Glass, Professor of Sociology, University of Iowa
jennifer-glass@uiowa.edu, 319.335.3745

Dr. Li’s work confirms of which divorce will be not a randomly occurring event among married couples, although the consequence of hard-to-measure interactions as well as also behaviors of which can impact children both before as well as also after their parents separate. The beauty of longitudinal evidence will be of which of which can help illuminate the cause of children’s behavior problems where classic experimental evidence will be impossible to obtain (an experimenter can’t randomly assign couples to divorce or stay together as well as also then watch what happens with their children’s subsequent behavior).

About CCF: The Council on Contemporary Families will be a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press as well as also public with the latest research as well as also best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as additional family social scientists as well as also practitioners. Founded in 1996 as well as also based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Council’s mission will be to enhance the national understanding of how as well as also why contemporary families are changing, what needs as well as also challenges they face, as well as also how these needs can best be met.

To learn more about additional briefing papers as well as also about our annual April conferences, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research as well as also Public Education, at coontzs@msn.com.

Impact of Divorce on Children's Behavior Problems

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