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Remarriage, divorce can change family structure significantly

This is the fourth in a series about the ripple effects of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What are further effects of family structure and change on children?

A: The following article from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand website provides an overview of the research available regarding the effects of family structure and change on children in the last two decades. The extent of the negative outcomes of parental separation has been characterized from modest to weak to generally small. For example, there is no direct cause-and-effect link between divorce and psychological adjustment issues in children.

Actually, some children benefit from divorce. These children can develop strengths such as an increased sense of responsibility if the post-divorce family setting is structured and predictable. When post-divorce families are chaotic, children might not be able to find order for themselves. Some children, however, might take active roles to help parents cope with divorce even when their parents are not coping well with their negative feelings and impulses. When divorce separates children from highly conflicted parents or from destructive parents, the children actually might benefit.

If a parent, usually a father, has anti-social behaviors, the less time he resides with the children, the less likely they are to become anti-social. In these cases, the children benefit from divorce, if they reside with their mothers.

However, it is true children of divorce generally do less well across a range of outcomes, but not at a significant level. Contrary to popular opinion, children do not benefit from parental remarriages, despite improved family income and a second adult to help with parenting. Children whose parents reconcile or remarry have more behavioral problems than children living with single parents.

Step-family relationships are complicated and take years to reach adjustments. To start, the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren are not by choice. Neither are the relationships with step-siblings. In addition, multiple family changes are more damaging to children, but even that percentage only ranged from 5 percent to 8 percent of negative outcomes in children. The research concludes the quality of transitions is more important than the number of changes.

In comparing short-term and long-term effects of parental separation on children, the research results are inconsistent. In the first two years after divorce, children and parents alike experienced a variety of problems and a decline in family function. There was a variation in children by age and gender. Girls were more likely to make full recoveries during elementary school, whereas boys living with mothers had behavior problems six years after the divorce.

In terms of long-term effects, some children had mental health problems into adulthood. There was a 39-percent increase in the risk of children of divorce developing mental health problems. But that was a small number. The predicted percentage of men from divorced parents who fell below the clinical level for psychopathology was 94 percent and for women was 82 percent. The adverse long-term effects of parental divorce on children include the domains of psychological adjustment, the use of mental health facilities, behavior and conduct, educational achievement, material economic quality, and divorce.

Multiple studies found parental divorce doubled the chances their adult children would divorce. This finding results from several trends in children of divorce. They engage in earlier-onset sex, leave home earlier, enter intimate relationships younger and become parents younger. Early marriage itself increases the risk of divorce. These younger persons have more economic problems and less social support from both society and family. Joan B. Kelly, who is a noted researcher and authority on children of divorce, emphasizes these children might not be maladjusted outside normal function, but they do remember for years the pain and sadness of parental divorce.

The Ministry of Social Development from New Zealand proposes five mechanisms to account for the link between parental separation and divorce and negative child outcomes. The first proposed cause is change in income. Economic circumstances decline after divorce, especially in single-parent mother households. Studies show when controlled for income, the effects of parental separation and divorce decline significantly and might disappear altogether.

Financial declines in income have many effects. It negatively can affect children's nutrition and health. It can reduce parental purchases of educational toys and books. It can force the family to move to a neighborhood with poor schools, high crime rates and exposure to gangs and drugs.

Economic hardships can have indirect effects. For example, mothers might be depressed or develop other mental health disorders and thus be more unavailable to the children for support. Some studies show post-divorce economic hardship is not totally responsible for adverse conditions in the children and the extent of economic influence varies from family to family. Because of the variation in results about the effects of economic hardships post-divorce, it is worthy to note the range of responses varies from little to considerable impact.

Children of parents who divorce fare worse than children who lose parents through death. Children of divorced mothers have lower education levels, lower job status and lower levels of happiness than children of widowed mothers. Widowed mothers have more status in society, in terms of better employment, higher paying jobs and occupational status.

* Next week's article will continue to discuss the effect of changing family structure and family change on children.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.