January 17, 1997

Children of divorced parents do not necessarily turn into maladjusted monsters, Christy Buchanan found

Susan divorced two years ago. She has two sons. There have been rough times, but they have coped remarkably well. And her sons are thriving. When children from divorced families have behaviour problems, we notice. But many children are like Susan's - happy, well-functioning youngsters. Why do some children thrive, and others falter?

To find out, we interviewed more than 500 adolescents about four years after their parents split up. The children we talked to were between six and 14 when the initial separation occurred. As adolescents, some of these children were in trouble: they were depressed, not doing well in school, or they had behaviour problems. But many were happy, achieving youngsters.

Susan has always maintained a close relationship with her children. Such closeness between children and their custodial parent turned out to be a primary factor predicting adolescents' well-being in our study. Closeness predicted less depression, especially for mother-custody adolescents. And when custodial parents were close to their children, they were more aware of their friends, activities and whereabouts. The more aware the parent, the less likely the adolescent was to be in trouble. Having organised routines in the household was also good for the children. And family decision-making practices that involved the parent and the adolescent were linked to better adjustment.

It is human nature to want allies, to want others to understand and even take our side in a conflict. Divorcing parents are only human. It must be difficult to allow, even encourage, your children to love someone who has hurt you. But parents who behave in ways that keep children from experiencing loyalty conflicts enhance their adolescents' chances for good adjustment.

Adolescents who experienced loyalty conflicts were more depressed and more likely to have behaviour problems than adolescents who did not experience them. And adolescents were quick to tell us what made them feel torn between parents: being asked to carry messages to the other parent; being asked questions about the other parent's home; having a parent disparaging the other parent in front of them.

Most parents develop new romantic relationships following divorce. Adolescents in our study were doing better when their parents were remarried to a new partner and worse when their parents cohabited. This was partly because adolescents were not as likely to accept the authority of a cohabiting partner as they were of a remarried new partner. In the words of one, when asked if her mother's new boyfriend had a right to make rules or decisions that affected her: "When he gets married to Mom, yes. Now? No.'' Adolescents also felt closer to cohabiting mothers than they did to remarried mothers. Perhaps being in the early stages of a new relationship detracts mothers' attention from children more than being in an established relationship.

We asked adolescents how satisfied they were with the way their time was split between homes. Time and again, adolescents who were satisfied said it was because they got to see both parents, and adolescents who were dissatisfied complained they missed their nonresidential parent. Even with activities and friends to juggle, adolescents valued time with each parent. It was not surprising, then, that adolescents in joint custody had higher levels of adjustment than those in sole-residence arrangements. Of course, families that choose - and are able to maintain - joint custody tend to be well-functioning families to begin with. Susan has joint custody, in part because of the mature relationships and communication in their family. But the arrangement has also helped preserve the good relationships between the boys and their father over time.

Adolescents in father custody were slightly less well adjusted than others in our sample. These, especially the girls, were not as close to their custodial parent and were not as well monitored as adolescents in other arrangements. In contrast to joint custody, father custody more often results from negative selective factors: for example, the children have had too much conflict with their mothers, or the mother has psychological or emotional problems that preclude her from becoming the custodial parent. The poorer outcomes and less positive relationships in father custody are partly a consequence of these selective factors. But they may also be due to the fact that fathers often have less experience in day-to-day caretaking of their children than do mothers.

Are children better off living with their same-sex parent? On average, boys functioned as well, and sometimes better, in mother custody as they did in other arrangements. But girls in father custody were adjusting worse than those in other arrangements. (They adjusted better if they at least felt close to their noncustodial mothers). Girls adjusted well in the custody of fathers if they had close relationships with both parents, if fathers were not hostile toward their mothers, and if their fathers engaged in effective parenting.

It is extremely important to stress that the actual difference in adjustment between custody arrangements were small. And there were success stories in every arrangement. Our results do not imply that fathers cannot be successful single parents, but simply that they tend to face more obstacles. How important, then, is the choice of a custody arrangement? Very important in that parents need to choose the arrangement that will best preserve good parent-child relationships and effective parenting and minimise loyalty conflicts for their children. Divorce is difficult, but it need not scar the children involved.

Christy Buchanan is assistant professor of psychology, Wake Forest University, North Carolina. Adolescents after Divorce, by Buchanan, Sanford Dornbusch and Eleanor Maccoby is published by Harvard University Press.

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