Parenting through family transitions.

Author:Amato, Paul R.


Children with divorced parents, compared with children with two continuously married parents, tend to score lower on a variety of measures of adjustment and wellbeing. Although several mechanisms are responsible for the link between divorce and children's problems, the most important factor is a deterioration in the quality of parent-child relationships. Following divorce, many single custodial mothers experience stress that interferes with the quality of parenting. The amount of time that non-custodial fathers have to spend with children is often inadequate to develop anything other than superficial relationships. Weak emotional bonds with parents, in turn, predict a variety of negative long-term outcomes among children. This paper reviews several policies in the United States that attempt to strengthen parent-child bonds following divorce, including parent education courses and the shift toward joint custody. This paper also looks at recent policies that adopt a preventive approach, that is, programmes that aim to strengthen marital quality and decrease the rate of divorce.


Research indicates that divorce increases the risk of a variety of problems for children, including academic failure, conduct disorders, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulties in peer relationships. Although most of this research has been conducted in the United States, comparable studies have been conducted in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. The consistency of research findings across settings suggests that the link between divorce and child problems is a general phenomenon, irrespective of variations in culture or policy environments. (For reviews of this literature, see Amato 2000, 2001.)

We should be careful, however, not to over-interpret these findings. Divorce increases the risk of many child problems, but this does not mean that all children of divorce are affected negatively. Many children from divorced families develop into competent, well-functioning adults. Moreover, many children in two-parent families are exposed to stressful circumstances that have negative consequences, including poverty, chronic marital discord, domestic violence, inept parenting, substance abuse, and parents' mental illness. Indeed, several studies show that children living with parents who are chronically hostile or violent are better off, in the long run, if their parents divorce (Amato and Booth 1997).

In this paper, I explain why divorce increases the risk of problems for children, with a focus on parent-child relationships. I then discuss several policy efforts in the United States that attempt to strengthen parent-child relationships following divorce, with the ultimate goal of improving children's long-term wellbeing.


Given the variability in outcomes for children in divorced families (as well as two-parent families), researchers have focused on the mechanisms through which divorce increases the risk of child problems.

These studies have identified a number of relevant factors. Because divorce splits one household into two, economies of scale are lost, resulting in a decline in children's standard of living. Moreover, many non-custodial fathers refuse or are unable to provide child support. Economic hardship means that many custodial parents (usually mothers) do not have the resources to purchase books, computers and other commodities that facilitate children's school success. In addition, many custodial mothers are forced to move to less expensive accommodation following divorce--a change that is distressing to many children. Moving is especially problematic if it involves relocating to a different neighborhood (which disrupts children's contact with neighborhood friends) or a different school district (which places children out of step with their classmates).

Moreover, most parents remarry following divorce, and many children resent the addition of a step-parent to the household. Remarriage, of course, increases the likelihood that children will experience additional parental divorces. Of all the risk factors associated with divorce, however, disruptions in parent-child relationships appear to have the greatest potential to affect children negatively.

The Importance of Authoritative Parenting

Before describing how divorce affects parent-child relationships, it is useful to review the concept of authoritative parenting. A large number of studies show that authoritative parenting is the parenting style most closely associated with a range of positive child outcomes (Baumrind 1968, Rollins and Thomas 1979, Maccoby and Martin 1983).

Support and control are central dimensions of authoritative parenting. Support is reflected in affection, responsiveness, encouragement, instruction and everyday assistance. These behaviours facilitate children's positive development by conveying a basic sense of trust and security, reinforcing children's self-conceptions of worth and competence, and promoting the learning of practical skills. Control is reflected in rule formulation, discipline and supervision. Through these parental behaviours, children learn that they must act within a set of socially constructed boundaries. Authoritative parents avoid harsh forms of punishment, such as hitting or yelling. Instead, by explaining the reasons behind rules, fathers and mothers help children to internalise rules and engage in self-regulation.

As children grow into adolescence, authoritative parents gradually relax the extent of control in line with children's growing ability to engage in self-regulation. Nevertheless, throughout the teen years, some degree of monitoring is necessary to ensure that children do well in school and do not drift into delinquent or antisocial activities.

The Importance of Cooperative Co-parenting

In addition to authoritative parenting, children thrive when their parents have a cooperative co-parental relationship. Parents who cooperate in child rearing present a united authority structure. When parents agree on the rules for children and support one another's decisions, children learn that parental authority is not arbitrary. Parental agreement also means that children are not subjected to inconsistent discipline following instances of misbehaviour. Consistency between parents helps children to learn and internalise social norms and moral values. Also, a respect for hierarchical authority, first learned in the family, makes it easier for young people to adjust to social institutions that are hierarchically organised, such as schools and the workplace.

Another benefit of a positive co-parental relationship is the modelling of dyadic skills. These skills include providing emotional support, showing respect, communicating clearly, and resolving disputes through negotiation and compromise. Children who learn these skills through the observation of parental models experience positive relationships with peers, and later, with intimate partners.

Finally, the relationship between parents can affect the quality of parent-child relationships. For example, wives with hostile and unsupportive husbands are likely to feel distracted, emotionally drained and irritable. As a result, they may be unresponsive or short-tempered when dealing with their children. In contrast, wives with supportive and helpful husbands are likely to have positive feelings that allow for more effective parenting. Similarly, support and encouragement from mothers improve the quality of fathers' parenting (Amato 1998).

Marital dissolution creates a number of challenges for parents. Custodial parents (usually mothers) must cope with the emotional aftermath of divorce, the difficulties of parenting...

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