Half of United States children will experience a divorce in their lifetime (Owenby Law 2018). Parental behavior can spread to children in families after or during a divorce. Parental divorce has been linked to placing “adult offspring at risk for distress, low self-esteem, and general unhappiness,” as well as several other emotional and mental obstructions (Amato 2001).
A study from Developmental cognitive neuroscience suggests that parents’ influence on their children is as potent as that of the children’s peers. It also suggests that “indiscriminate patterns of conformity toward peers and parents may have stemmed from the increased difficulty of resolving conflict between their own attitudes and those of multiple sources of influence,” such as divorced parents (Do 2020).
In The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, follows Gogul Ganguli as he grows into an adult. He grows to be ashamed of his name and blames it on his parents (Lahiri 2004). Poor communication between Gogul and his parents affected him in adulthood. Similarly, poor communication from parents can cause problems in adulthood for children of divorce.
Paul R. Amato, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University, and well-known social science researcher, notes that, “discord and disruption in the family of origin can have consequences for offspring that persist well into adulthood,” (Amato 2001). For example, children of divorce are “more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to attend college, and complete fewer years of education overall” (Amato 2001).
Evaluation of the different effects parental divorce can have on children begs the question: How can children’s emotional wellbeing and educational opportunity be protected through a parental divorce in the United States?
Part One: The Impact
Overall, an investigation of the effects and possible steps that may be taken regarding children of parental divorce suggests the need for federal action as well as court-mandated action in all United States divorce cases.
Parental Divorce can impair children’s socioeconomic attainment. Most prominently, divorce can diminish financial status in families, and this carries on into children’s educational options. Financial strain is common in families of divorce because families become responsible for two households instead of one, and divorce creates many single parents.
Sol R. Rappaport, a clinical psychologist on the faculty of the American Barr Association's Trial Advocacy Institute, claims that “in America approximately 55% of separated or divorced women with children under the age of six live below the poverty line,” (Rappaport 2013). This shows that divorce often limits families’ ability to provide for their children. Jennie E. Brand, a professor of sociology and statistics from the University of California San Diego, discovered decreased educational attainment in children of divorce compared to children with intact families (Brand 2019).
Amato identifies possible sources of these educational attainment disparities, and he attributes them to the children’s standards of living decreasing as they move to cheaper communities with faultier schools (Amato 2001). Hence, divorce can force families into poorer socio-economic positions, which can then hinder children’s educational opportunities.
Divorce also causes emotional well-being issues in children. A common occurrence in divorced families is the action of children “carrying messages” between parents (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016).
This often involves children in the parents’ conflicts. Sagrario Yárnoz-Yaben, a professor from Titular University and writer for the Journal of Child and Family Studies, surveyed “young adults” from divorced families to identify factors that induce “anxiety, depression, fewer positive relations with others, and higher marital instability and dissatisfaction” for children after a divorce (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016). Among the possible factors were “carrying messages” (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016). According to Yárnoz-Yaben, “parental demands to carry messages” were better predictors of negative effects than “gender, romantic status, or parental remarriage” (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016).
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Yárnoz-Yaben claims that carrying messages forces kids to take sides, and because of this they “feel tension when being caught in the middle” and become “confused about boundaries, loyalties, and the source of blame” (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016).
To go further, Maria C. Verrochio, associate professor of clinical psychology at the D'Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara, surveyed adults from divorced families to examine possible connections between parental loyalty conflicts and psychological maltreatment signs such as spurning and terrorizing.
Verrochio’s results showed parental loyalty conflicts such as parents speaking critically of each other, or requests to keep secrets from a parent to be “statistically significantly associated with exposure to psychological maltreatment” as well as “current well-being and functioning” (Verrocchio 2015).
Demands for kids to carry messages between parents and parental loyalty conflicts are both categorized as a phenomenon called “Parental Alienation.” Parental Alienation circumstances are defined as involving acts with the intent of inducing children to reject a parent (Sirbu 2020).
Kathy T. Do from Developmental cognitive neuroscience found that children respond to conflict differently when “multiple sources of influence” are involved (Do 2020). When these sources of influence are opposing parents, these situations with multiple sources of influence bear a striking resemblance to parental alienation. Supporting Yárnoz-Yaben and Verrochio, this finding indicates the significant influence that antagonistic parents have on children’s behavior.
Yárnoz-Yaben, Verrochio, and Do show that these circumstances can take many forms and that Parental Alienation is one of the most common sources of mental wellbeing issues in children of parental divorce.
Researching further into Parental Alienation, Amy J. Baker, a developmental psychologist from the Teacher College of Colombia University, supports Verrochio’s connections between parental alienation and psychological maltreatment. Baker identifies two possible “mechanisms'' with parental alienation.
The first is that “children identify with their parents and when one parent conveys to the child that the other parent is unworthy of the child’s love and respect, the child will feel that the parent is conveying to the child his own unworthiness.”
In parental alienation, “the parent’s rejection of the other parent is experienced as a rejection of that part of the child that is like the other parent.” The other mechanism is that “when a parent engages in parental alienation behaviors, he is encouraging the child to believe that the other parent does not love him,” (Baker 2015).
Baker associates both mechanisms with psychological maltreatment and negative relationship effects (Baker 2015). Thus, Parental alienation has been shown to be the most impactful factor in causing mental wellbeing issues in children of parental divorce.
Financial stability in families of divorce can be addressed through child support. Child support payments are designed to support children in families of divorce by requiring monthly payments from one parent (usually the noncustodial parent) to the other (usually the custodial parent) to support the family’s child or children. Rappaport states that financial stability would “help reduce the parent's level of stress, which can have a direct effect on the parent's and child's functioning.
Part Two: Solutions to The Problem
Furthermore, it may allow the main caregiver not to have to increase work hours. This can often mean fewer chances for the child or children and more direct supervision by a parent (Rappaport 2013).
Child support’s ability to support divorced families seems plausible, but payments are established at the state level. So, payment amounts can vary. For instance, the average monthly child support payment in the New England region is $928, while the average monthly payment in the Rocky Mountain region is $556 (Kleinman 2022).
Federally standardizing the system of calculating child support payment amounts could make them fairer to the custodial parents and children. Subsequently, more children of divorced families could retain their standards of living and quality of school. While federally standardizing the system of calculating child support payment amounts would allow children from divorced families to retain their level of education and standards of living, mental well-being could prevent them from fully taking advantage of their improved situations As Amato found that children of divorce with mental issues have shown decreased grades (Amato 2001).
If children are experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues due to parental alienation, they are still at risk for harmful development into adulthood. Therefore, to fully utilize federal standardization of the system of calculating child support payment amounts, children’s mental wellbeing must be protected as well.
In searching for a solution, many researchers believe that post-divorce programs that educate parents or children about behaviors that can negatively affect the mental wellbeing of children and ways to prevent and correct that behavior. Yárnoz-Yaben concluded from her study that, “children’s well-being and the quality of post-divorce family dynamics can be improved by relatively brief court-ordered parent education programs,” and that “these programs promote parenting and communication skills that minimize the problems associated with children being caught in the middle of post-divorce parental disputes and difficulties and enhance parent-child relationships and children’s post-divorce adjustment,” (Yárnoz-Yaben 2016).
Parental alienation can be quickly corrected when parents are aware of behaviors that can be detrimental to their children. Testing Yárnoz-Yaben’s conclusions, Ana Martínez-Pampliega, the head researcher of the Deusto FamilyPsych research group, conducted a 6-month longitudinal study on the efficacy of a post-divorce educational program called Egokitzen for parents in Spain.
Martínez-Pampliega found significant improvements on resolution of conflict with children present, aggressive behavior, and hostile displays with children present (Martínez-Pampliega 2015). Providing an American perspective, Sharlene A. Wolchik, a psychology professor at Arizona State university, researched the efficacy of a post-divorce educational program in America called the New Beginnings program.
In the New Beginnings Program, both parents and children are participants. Parents still learn about parental alienation and specific behaviors with risk for Parental Alienation, but children in the New Beginnings Program learn how to communicate with parents if issues do arise. Wolchik’s research shows not only decreased mental health and behavior problems, but also increased academic performance (Wolchik 2021).
The New Beginnings Program is also convenient for divorced families because it only requires 11 sessions. Widespread implementation of the New Beginnings Program would require funding.
However, Rachel Haine, a clinical psychologist from Arizona State University, reviewed a “survey of a nationally representative sample of family courts” and explains that “the majority of respondents reported that a large range of stakeholders favor such a program, including judges, bar members, and the State Supreme Court,” (Haine 2003).
Due to its convenience and efficacy, the New Beginnings Program is the optimal way to address Parental Alienation in divorced families.
On the other hand, there are other options for protecting the mental well-being of children from divorced families. Sanford M. Portnoy, a psychologist from the American Journal of Family Law, argues that divorce lawyers can improve relationships between parents as well as provide children of divorce with improved educational attainment with financial stability.
These lawyers can advocate for “reasonableness” with their clients and encourage healthier divorces (Portnoy 2008).
Parents coming to more mutually acceptable divorce terms could prevent conflict between parents and parental alienation. If divorce lawyers encourage their clients to “keep the children in mind” when reaching financial statements, they can help to create more “successful” divorces (Portnoy 2008).
Divorce lawyers can ensure that children of divorce are supported financially in negotiations. After a divorce, Portnoy advises lawyers to “establish a team” of “mental health professionals at your disposal who can fill the roles of coach, child specialist, or therapist,” (Portnoy 2008). In agreement with Portnoy, Amato supports third-party communication help between parents.
According to Amato, the mental well-being of children of parental divorce requires “interventions that promote the positive involvement of both parents in children's lives following divorce, as well as the development of cooperative post-divorce relationships between parents,” (Amato 2001).
While divorce lawyers can protect the mental well-being and educational opportunity of children of parental divorce, it is unrealistic to regulate for all lawyers to encourage reasonable divorce terms with their clients. Thus, obstacles with the implementation of divorce lawyers encouraging for fairer divorce terms prevent it from being a viable solution.
Part Three: The Future
The impact of parental divorce on children brings mental wellbeing issues and educational impediments. Children’s educational opportunities can be harmed by financial struggles in children’s families due to divorce.
Protecting children’s educational opportunities calls for federal standardization of the system of calculating child support payment amounts to provide custodial parents with sufficient funds to preserve children’s standards of living. The most destructive factor for children’s mental well-being is Parental Alienation.
Widespread implementation of the New Beginnings Program would educate parents about behavior that can be detrimental to their children as well as help children in communicating with their parents through conflict. With this proposal, fewer children will be compromised by parental divorce in the United States.
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