B. Conflict Between Parental Figures
Parental conflict has been consistently associated with poor psychological outcomes for children. Conflict is a primary factor related to the adjustment of children after the divorce of their parents. Children whose parents fight in front of them are likely to exhibit a wide range of negative behaviors, whether or not their parents remain together or divorce. Children from high-conflict intact families exhibited lower self-esteem and poorer adjustment than children from divorced families or from low-conflict, intact families. Parental conflict has been identified as the differentiating variable in studies comparing the success of mediation and litigation in resolving custody disputes and of joint versus sole physical custody. In high conflict divorces, court-ordered joint physical custody and frequent visitation were related to poorer child adjustment, particularly for girls.
The most deleterious effects of conflict are manifest in those children whose parents involve them in the battle by encouraging alliances, using them to communicate to the other parent, and making negative statements about the other parent to the children. The negative consequences of parental conflict may be attenuated by positive conflict resolution strategies, expression of the conflict, and adjustment of the parents. In a review of the effects of high-conflict divorce, Janet R. Johnston states that, although the results of many studies on conflict are correlational and should be viewed as tentative, the findings are, however, fairly consistent. “Interparental conflict after divorce (for example, verbal and physical aggression, overt hostility, distrust) and the custodial parent’s emotional distress are jointly predictive of more problematic parent-child relationships and greater child maladjustment.” Generally little change occurs over time in the degree of conflict that parent exhibits to the other.
C. Age Of Child
Children of different ages have varying developmental levels of cognitive and emotional resources that may influence how they react to parental separation and divorce. While some reports demonstrate that children of particular ages, e.g. preschool, are most vulnerable to psychological distress following family dissolution other studies have not found one age group to be more at risk than another. It has been suggested that the effects of age are intertwined with other variables, such as amount of time since parental separation. In terms of most developmental theories, the younger the child the greater the impact that separation may have with regard to the relationship with the non-residential parent. For infants and very young children, the emotional attachment to the noncustodial parent may be tenuous, since it gradually develops over the first few years of life. Although usually one primary attachment figure exists, children develop relationships with a number of caregivers, who are sources of nurturance and safety for them. Separation prior to the consolidation of a parent-child relationship may interfere with the formation of that relationship. Furthermore, children may be more vulnerable in the face of environmental change during the period when they are exploring their sense of themselves as independent and autonomous (also known as the “terrible two’s”). From a cognitive perspective, infants and very young children do not have the resources to understand the absence of a significant attachment figure, such as a parent. Although they may not be able to verbalize or identify their feelings, they may experience distress. Preschool children often assume they are to blame for the divorce, relating it to some behavior on their part, such as making too much noise. They may also express fantasies about their parents reuniting, even when their parents were never married or have already re-married. For example, one child wanted to introduce her step-mother and step-father to each other so they would fall in love and then her mother and father would get back together. Moving away from the home community may, on the one hand, feed children’s guilt and blame fantasies, e.g. feeling responsible for the absence of the left-behind parent. Feelings of abandonment may also be part of the moving experience for preschoolers, who cannot understand why the parent left-behind did not move with them. Children of this age are also very literal in their thinking and cannot project what their new life will be like. One three-year old child’s lack of enthusiasm after seeing her new large, but empty, room was clarified when she asked where she was going to sleep. Elementary school-age children are developing interests and activities outside the home and are usually very involved with peer relationships. They are the children who want to keep everything fair and balanced with respect to their parents. For example, they may want to assure that each parent has “equal time” with them, which is not possible, in most cases, and certainly not in relocation cases. In some respects, children of this age group are more vulnerable to the effects of divorce than preschool children because they have a better understanding of the situation but can no longer effectively use fantasy to deny or escape the reality. These children, however, have a better sense of time and continuity and understand that they will continue to see the noncustodial parent.
Pre-adolescents or young adolescents generally have better coping skills than younger children, have established strong peer relationships, and may be more responsive to therapeutic intervention. They are, however, susceptible to loyalty conflicts between the parents and may get caught up in the parents’ battles, often siding with the parent they perceive as the weaker or wronged one. Children in this age group, particularly boys, are more likely to express anger or aggressive behavior. They may take a stand for or against the move as a way of supporting one parent. As with all school-age children, leaving friends, activities, and the familiar school are major sources of anxiety, whether the family is intact or one parent is staying behind. Younger and older adolescents may be slower to adjust to the impact of family disruption than younger children. Adolescents possess the cognitive capacity to understand their parents’ divergent viewpoints and to appreciate that their parents’ failed marriage is not their fault or responsibility. They are, therefore, able to distance themselves from the parental in- teraction better than younger children. Adolescents are coping with their developmental tasks of identity resolution, independence, and intimacy in relationships. Paradoxically, however, while these tasks ultimately separate them from their parents, they still want and need the family to remain intact during this process. Divorce disrupts the stable family base to which an adolescent can return when he or she needs parental nurturance in order to continue the move toward adulthood. With regard to relocation, adolescents can maintain the relationship with the noncustodial parent on a long distance basis more easily than younger children. Moving to a new school in the middle of high school, however, can significantly increase an adolescents’ level of stress and may interfere with integration into that school. In the clinical setting, adolescents frequently resist moving, following the divorce of their parents. In the divorce situation, particularly where relocation is contested, it is very difficult for children of any age to view it in a totally positive frame. Some evidence exists that the acute effects of divorce dissipate and most children and parents adjust after two years. While no empirical evidence directly links the timing of a relocation to the child’s quality of adjustment, one can infer from psychological research and clinical experience that it would be better for the child to adjust to the divorce in a familiar environment, prior to relocation.
D. Parent-Child Relationships
For the most part, a child who has positive relationships with both parents is likely to be better adjusted than a child who does not. With regard to the relationship between the child and the custodial parent, the research indicates that a positive relationship affects a wide range of variables, such as academic achievement, self-concept, and general psychological adjustment.