The Factors that Link Parental Separation and Loss of Custody to Child Development
The structure of the average household in the more liberal areas of the world has undergone rapid changes in recent decades. Modern times have seen the emergence of the non-traditional family, to the point that less than half of children in the United States of America are currently growing up in traditional families, i.e. a mother and father in their first marriage.1 Non-traditional families include those with single parents, same-sex parents, cohabitation and polygamy. For the sake of brevity due to the extent of the literature, this paper will focus on the case of children growing up in single-parent families as well as the case of remarriage. This paper aims to discuss the impact of changing or unconventional family structure on the well-being of the children raised in them by studying the available literature and subsequently analyzing it and providing a possible solution to the issues that will be uncovered.
The literature surrounding the effects of parental separation on children highlights a range of effects. Parental separation negatively impacts children’s cognitive capacity, school performance, social conduct and behavior, peer relations and their physical, mental and emotional health. It also results in greater risks of criminal offense, smoking, substance abuse and earlier tendencies to leave the household and/or engage in sexual behavior. Other effects come about at the later stage of early adulthood, such as early marriage and childbearing, increased rates of divorce and lone parenthood, less successful careers, lack of truck, discontentment and early death.2 However, it is important to note that the extent of these effects is not necessarily large. In fact, Allison and Furstenberg (1989) explained that the effects that can be directly attributed to marital distribution were less than 3%. 3 In other words, simply knowing that a child’s parents are separated doesn’t translate to a set list of effects. Demo and Acock (1996) explained that “the differences in adolescent well-being within family types are greater than the differences across family types, suggesting that family processes are more important than family composition.” Variance in adolescent well-being is more commonly explained by family relations than family structure.4 Parental separation and “disturbed children” are not directly correlated phenomena. In fact, some children actually show positive effects in the wake of parental separation, such as a sense of responsibility. Additionally, in the case of separation due to a problematic family life, the removal of tension between the parents may be beneficial to the child’s development. For instance, Jaffee et al. (2003) found that children exhibit poor conduct when a father spends less time with them, in a normal scenario. However, in the case where the father shows highly antisocial behavior, spending more time with the father causes the child to exhibit greater levels of conduct problems, and parental separation and subsequent custody of the mother would benefit the child.5 Even considering the last point, though, the literature suggests that children whose parents have separated are generally worse off as determined by several criteria for quality of life.
As for remarriage, the reintroduction of a partner does provide additional resources both financially and with parenting duties. However, studies have shown that, despite the support, children who grow up in single-parent families exhibit less behavioral trouble than those whose parents have remarried or reconciled.6 Additionally, remarriage was found to be more relevant to mothers’ accounts of their children’s behavioral and emotional difficulties than divorce.7 The likely explanation for this is the initial tension as the step-father (as mothers are generally granted custody following separation) and child are unfamiliar with each other. As a result, step-fathers tend to be less engaged and involved with the child, and stepfamilies are less cohesive than intact families.8 However, reports that stepfamilies do eventually become functional suggest that the challenges faced in remarriage are not insurmountable.
The literature also highlights the impacts of non-traditional families that can endure till – or appear in – adulthood. Divorce was found to generally cause an increase in deterioration of mental health and a 39% increase in the risk psychopathology. However, the risk remains low, and few people were found to be at risk – 82% of female adults and 94% of male adults whose parents separated during childhood were expected to be diagnosed as clinically psychopathic.10 Parental divorce was also found to affect their psychological adjustment, mental facility use rates, behavior, educational accomplishment, financial status and divorce rates.11
The research method of this study will be an analytical approach to the information gathered in the literature review with further, more specific research on the factors that link parental separation to the overall health of the child. The main limitation of the study is the vast amount of information available of the topic of non-traditional families and even parental separation specifically; additionally, it is more suitable for a psychological evaluation than an anthropological one. As such, the amount of references is greater than that recommended in the assignment, but this has been done with the goal of reducing the selective bias throughout this study.
Relating Parental Separation to Child Development
Based on the above literature review, five key mechanisms can be highlighted regarding the relation between parental separation and the negative effects it has on the child: change of income, the absent parent, the mental health of the present parent, interparental tensions and the parenting.
Amato (1993) summarized the ways in which financial struggle following a separation may affect a child’s quality of life: “financial hardship may negatively affect children’s nutrition and health; it reduces parental investment in books, educational toys, computers, private lessons; it constrains choice of residential location, which means that the family may have to live in a neighborhood where school programmes are poorly financed, services are inadequate and crime rates are high; children are more likely in such neighborhoods to associate with delinquent peers.”12 However, further analysis on this topic has yielded mixed results. On the one hand, studies have shown that these post-separation effects decrease in homes where the incomes are controlled, which makes the argument for change of income a strong one.13 On the other hand, Hetherington et al. (1998) showed that in the case where a family held the income as a control variable and found that, even with a controlled income, children of separated parents still showed more behavioral difficulties than children in complete families, which suggests that the effect of changing income is not strong and possibly even indirect.
Again, the father is assumed to be the absent parent since mothers are typically granted custody of the child. The assumption that one parent will do a worse job raising a child on their own and the absence of a male role model is detrimental to the development of the child is a logical one; however, studies have failed to back this claim convincingly. In fact, some have even found evidence disproving the theory.
Biblarz and Gottainer (2000) found that the children of widowed mothers performed better in school and achieved greater career success and quality of life than children of divorced mothers. This is not to say that widows make better mothers than divorced women; rather, society favors widows more than the latter as far as social structure, employment opportunities and financial status as concerned. These economic factors that place divorced mothers at a disadvantage are far more significant than the mere absence of the father.
As for the case of remarried mothers, the child’s wellbeing does not necessarily improve – as discussed in the literature review. This also supports the notion that income status is not a critical factor since remarriage typically results in improved financial status for the family. The aforementioned initial tension between child and step-father is the most plausible explanation for why the improved economic situation and reinstatement of the male role model do not directly result in improved conditions for the development of a child in a remarried family.
In conclusion, the presence of a substitute male role model (in the case of remarriage) and the usual continued support of the father even when absent (i.e. alimony, financial support, custody on weekends etc.) could explain the less-than-expected impact of the father’s general absence from the child’s life.
Maternal Mental Health
Following divorce, it is more common for mothers than fathers to describe feelings of low self-esteem due to the failed marriage. The reported higher rates of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem can also manifest in their parenting methods through lack of affection and communication and harsher and more inconsistent disciplinary tactics, all of which in turn negatively affect the child’s mental health. Conversely, mothers who still manage to maintain healthy relationships with their children avoid the negative effects.16 We can conclude that the mother’s mental health is a very strong factor in determining the effect of parental separation on the child’s development.
The difficulty in this factor is that is cannot be studied in a controlled manner, since divorces usually take place as a result of conflict between the parent. While roughly half of divorces suffered from large conflicts in the build-up compared to a quarter of families who remained married, it is also not uncommon for marriages with high conflict to remain married. In fact, Hanson (1999) reported that 75% of high-conflict couples opted against divorce, showing that divorce is rarely a solution to the family’s issues. 17 Pre-separation conflict and divorce independently influence child development, and marital conflict, even in intact families, can be just as harmful as parental separation. However, this depends on the severity of the conflict. Children benefit from divorce in high-conflict situations, while children in low-conflict families are worse off when their parents separate.18 Hanson agreed with the latter part of this conclusion, but found that children in high-conflict situations weren’t typically affected positively or negatively by divorce. Still, the general consensus seems to be that children suffer when their parents divorce in low-conflict situations and benefit from divorce in high-conflict situations.
As for post-separation conflict, the findings are more consistent. The amount of conflict is directly proportional to the negative effects it has on the child’s health. This is particularly true for conflict that centers around or directly involves the child, is physically violent or abusive, and/or makes the child feel like he has come between his parents.
Based on the previous points, there are some conclusions that can be used to discuss this point. The mother, being the typically present parent, is the largest deciding factor in how the divorce affects the child’s development as far as home life is concerned. The father’s involvement also influences the level of behavioral problems, particularly in boys. Another interesting hypothesis is that the difficulty of overseeing a daughter’s dating habits as a single parent can directly result in early family-forming once she becomes an adult.20 Most importantly, divorce causes a significant disruption in the bond between parents and children which affects the children’s self-esteem.
From the above analysis of the research done on the five proposed mechanisms that correlate divorce to the well-being of the child, it is apparent that they are not all equal. Control groups showed that the possible change of income is not a direct factor, nor is the absence of the father from the household (not to be conflated with absence from the child’s life entirely). However, the mental health of the mother, the level of conflict in the household and the quality of parenting post-divorce are all strong and direct factors for the child’s development. It is perhaps fitting that they were found to be interrelated to some capacity. Evidently, the two biological parents’ relationship post-divorce and the parenting of the child going forward are two criteria that need to be directly and immediately addressed following separation to minimize its effect on the child’s development. Otherwise, as discussed, separation can lead to not only short-term difficulties but also dysfunction later as an adult.
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