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Suffer not the children, after divorce

Tim Watkin

Anneliese was at primary school when her father "got into a bad crowd" and her mother left him, taking the children with her.

For the next eight years, Anneliese says, her mother was always in a bad mood. So Anneliese got into the habit of doing the chores to keep the peace. "I got to learn that if you just had the house nice and clean, and dinner on, it would be less likely that mum would be upset with us."

In contrast, Vicky's parents stayed together, but fought often. So rather than going out with friends or joining groups after school, she would rush home knowing that when she was there, they didn't fight so much.

The stories are sad but hardly uncommon; nothing startling in these days of high family pressures. But they illustrate a new understanding of divorce revealed in Children in Changing Families: Life After Parental Separation, the work of Dr Jan Pryor, senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University, and Dr Bryan Rogers, a senior fellow in the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University.

What the stories tell us is that despite the parents' choices, the impact on the girls was the same – both lost pieces of their childhood and ended up as teenagers parenting their parents.

"What turns out to be the case is that the separation of the parents carries almost no weight in terms of predicting how kids are going to do," says Pryor. "What does carry the weight are other things you can sometimes do something about. The big one is parental conflict, and the second is how parents parent their children."

The conclusion is both a reassuring message and a warning to couples contemplating separation – and it's sure to be a red rag to lobbyists on both sides of the divorce debate.

As divorce rates have risen in the West over the past few generations, parents have wrestled with guilt and grief over what damage a family breakup might do to their children. In the middle of the 20th century there was pressure for parents to stay together "for the children". Then came the idea that divorce could be liberating, not necessarily damaging.

By the 1970s there was the feeling that unhappy parents meant unhappy kids. In recent years, studies showing that children from two-parent homes consistently did better in terms of education, income and social skills have reasserted the pressure to stay together.

The debate – utterly personal and always political – has ebbed and flowed between liberal and conservative shores, with the odd tidal wave thrown up by new research findings.

Pryor and Rogers' work is the most comprehensive review of separation research in at least 10 years, if not ever, and it began when the issue got too hot to handle in Britain.
They were asked to complete a review of British studies into separation, published in 1998, when the divorce debate there became so intense that researchers felt compelled to go offshore for an objective viewpoint. With that completed, the pair decided to extend their review worldwide. They gathered together every credible study they could lay their hands on, back as far as the 1950s, but with an emphasis on the more sophisticated, modern research.

What the research has consistently shown is that "children from separated families typically have from one-and-a-half times to double the risk of an adverse outcome compared to children from intact families". What's more, "the disadvantages associated with parental separation are not only seen in childhood but are notably persistent." As a result the book says, "Children have the best chance of thriving within happy, two-parent families".

So, considering that, how does Pryor come to the conclusion that separation itself does not damage children? Put as simply as possible, while children are at greater risk of problems if parents separate, she says, it's not the separation itself that causes the problems.

"Whether or not the risks for children associated with divorce are actually realised is determined not by the separation itself, but by the complex interplay of other factors [most notably bad parenting and conflict] that are present before, during and after the separation."

"Take an outcome like self-esteem," Pryor continues. "You can take a group of kids from both intact and divorced families and say the self-esteem on average is higher for the kids whose parents stay together. But then if you take those two groups and look at other things such as how much did they fight, how often did they visit their kids' school, how many changes of neighbourhood did they have, and you find that those are the things that make the difference. They are associated with separation, but we can minimise them."

Pryor and Rodgers' conclusion that separation by itself does not damage children is based on long-term studies in Britain and the US. The studies have shown that the comparatively poor behaviour and achievement of children from separated families did not suddenly appear after the separation. It was apparent for some time before separation. For example, children in the British study who experienced parental separation between ages 11 and 16 already showed measured disadvantages when they were just 7-years-old.

Even when parents stayed together, if conflict was not resolved, their children, on average, suffered problems – such as criminal behaviour, educational and relationship failures and low income – to almost the same extent as when parents did separate. "In other words, factors aside from separation itself, but which are common in families that separate, contributed to the differences. Furthermore, whatever these factors may be, they have a significant impact several years beforehand."

The factors that cause the problems for children, she says, are, in fact, bad parenting and conflict. Therefore, the key to avoiding such problems is not so much keeping the parents together, it's improving the parenting and minimising the conflict. Further, it matters little whether the children end up in lone-parent families, step-families, gay families, whatever.

"It is doubtful that the shape of families and households matter for children's welfare. Far more important is the nature of the relationships within them, and the extent to which they remain stable."

Loss of income is another reason often given for not parting. But Pryor says income, too, has usually fallen before a separation. It does tend to fall further for mothers, but, surprisingly, the only outcome made worse by a lower income is educational achievement.

"Economic factors don't link up with behaviour problems or self-esteem. [Educational achievement] is the only one they predict. They're not as important as people imagine."
Pryor's own research has shown that children themselves are conservative – they usually want the family to stay together. But she's also found that "they are very resilient. They are hugely pragmatic when things change".

Pryor and Rodgers believe that where families are unhappy and in conflict, "the least risky option for children may be separation". Whatever course is chosen, the goal must be to protect them from adult arguments and tensions and make sure they maintain close, open family relationships. In other words, divorce or no divorce, Pryor says, "kids who have less conflict in their life and good relationships with both parents seem to be much better off".

Ponder all this research and you still end up with the classic conclusion that social science debates always seem to come to – it depends. How a family handles parental conflict and how the children turn out depends on the family's circumstances, on relationships, on the children's personalities.

Which is, of course, plainly obvious. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, "all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

However, ending up at "it depends" is not the same as hitting a brick wall. The significance of Pryor and Roger's book is that it reveals what it depends on: Not on parental separation per se, but on the quality of parenting.

Pryor says that leaves us with two key messages.

"One is that on average, children whose parents separate are at increased risk for a range of outcomes like behaviour problems or not finishing education. But we can do something about that by improving parenting and minimising conflict. The other one, which is equally important, is that the majority of children whose parents separate do not experience that risk. In other words, most kids are fine."

One typical study from the US that showed "16 per cent of children from separated families dropped out of high school compared with 9 per cent from intact families".

As stated earlier, the children from separated families are nearly twice as likely as those from intact families to suffer this "adverse outcome". However, Pryor emphasises that the number of children actually affected is comparatively small. These findings seem to endorse major new research from the US that was released in January, and has already created a storm of controversy there and in Britain.

E. Mavis Hetherington, a distinguished psychologist and professor emeritus from the University of Virginia, has tracked 2500 people in 1400 families over 25 years. Her findings, presented in her book For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, conclude that almost four out of five children of divorce function well, suffering little long-term damage. She has been held up as a champion for the divorce-comfortable babyboomer generation and a scourge for those arguing for the sanctity of marriage.

She does not dismiss the 25 per cent of children from divorced families who have serious emotional or social problems (compared with 10 per cent from intact families). "I've never seen a victimless divorce," Hetherington told The Observer. "But a lot of the current work makes it sound as if you've given your kids a terminal disease when you go through a divorce. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was not only to get the figures out, but to say that if we put children through this, then tell them they are never going to recover, this is damaging in itself."

Hetherington's research contradicts recent controversial studies, such as the Exeter Family Study and research by Californian professor Judith Wallerstein. Both found that children experienced deep and long-term damage from divorce, but both were criticised as skewed by the conservative religious views of the researchers.

Given that nobody wants divorce made illegal or loaded with the stigma it used to carry, Pryor believes efforts have to be made to help parents to separate with as little conflict, loss of contact and loss of income as possible.

The New Zealand Government already plays an important part in supporting families; most notably Pryor points to the family courts here. Rare in legal systems around the world, they deal with approximately the most troubled 10 per cent of families, yet only 1 per cent of those have to go before a judge. "It minimises the number of adversarial encounters," she says.

Where the state could help more is by easing parental pressures, with parental leave (which is coming) and the provision of accessible, affordable childcare. "We could kick in earlier with [struggling] families. In England women having had their first baby are screened for the state of their relationship. If it's looking shaky, help can be offered. That's the kind of intervention that can keep relationships on the rails."

However, if good parenting is the key to how children handle parental turmoil, the crucial question is: what can a parent do to get it right?

Pryor suggests there are a few simple tricks. For a start, keep the children out of adult fights. Parents should never use their children against each other or as go-betweens. That applies even once they've separated.

"For example, have your arguments on the phone when the kids have gone to bed. Or, if you can't face each other when you pass the children over, one of you take the children to school and the other one can pick them up."

Children value stability, especially in their relationships. A key indicator for children who do better after a separation is maintaining contact with both parents. Often fathers grow distant. If there's abuse involved, that's essential. But in any other case children who stay close to their father are less likely to display behaviour or adjustment problems.
Interviews with children often reveal a feeling of alienation from the family during a separation.

Pryor: "The kids say, 'We don't need the gory details, but let us know what's happening.' It's hugely important. What's really compelling is that there is research that shows that if kids are told and given decent explanations, then down the line they are measurably better off. They do better in a whole lot of ways because they don't feel helpless and on the outside."

Learning the lessons from this kind of research is vital, not just to children such as Vicky and Anneliese, but to us all. As Pryor and Rodgers conclude in their book:

"Alongside the survival of the environment, the task of nurturing the survival of families in all their diversity might be the challenge with the greatest implications for us all."

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