Effects On Children
Two of the strongest and most widely held beliefs about contemporary family life are that marriage should be a lifelong commitment and that parental divorce has serious negative effects on children. Because of the conviction with which these values are held, many people are alarmed by the high divorce rate in the United States and in many other industrialized nations. Across industrialized nations, the divorce rate is by far the highest in the United States, where about half of all first marriages formed in the 1990s will end in divorce, and more than one million children experience parental divorce each year (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). While the divorce rate in the United States is 4.33 per 1,000 population, the comparable rates in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, and Italy are 2.91, 2.42, 2.41, 2.14, 2.01, 1.65, and .47, respectively (United Nations 2000). Although marital dissolution is an important social issue in many countries, research on its effects on children has largely been conducted in the United States.
In the United States, dramatic changes in children's living arrangements have occurred across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic categories. From 1970 to 1998, the percentage of white children living with two parents (including stepparents) fell from 90 percent to 74 percent; for African-American children, the percentage declined from 60 percent to 36 percent; and for Hispanic children, the percentage decreased from 78 percent to 64 percent (Teachman, Tedrow, and Crowder 2000).
With so many children and adolescents experiencing their parents' divorce and living in single-parent families and stepfamilies, it is important to understand how parental divorce affects children. During the 1980s and 1990s, a considerable amount of social scientific scholarship was devoted to considering whether or not divorce negatively affects the lives of children. Social scientific and psychological evidence regarding the influence of divorce on children is also used in formulating social policies and laws regarding marriage and divorce. In the 1990s alone, more than 9,000 studies on divorce were conducted in the United States across a variety of disciplines, including sociology, family studies, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, family therapy, social work, social policy, and law (Amato 2000).
With so much attention being devoted to the topic across such diverse fields, and with divorce being both deeply personal and controversial, it is perhaps not surprising that there are different interpretations of the consequences of divorce for children. Although there are scientific data to suggest that divorce has negative effects on children, scholars are not in complete agreement regarding how strong the effects are, whether or not negative effects are due to divorce as an event or a process, and whether or not divorce may actually be good for children in some situations. Three prevailing themes are supported by the bulk of research evidence: (1) divorce is better understood as a process rather than a discrete life event; (2) the consequences of divorce for children are not as severe nor as longlasting as popularly assumed; and (3) there is a substantial degree of variation in how individual children and adolescents respond to divorce. This last point suggests that divorce undoubtedly has some negative effects for some children, particularly in certain situations. What is not clear, however, is whether the negative effects of divorce are due to family circumstances prior to the divorce, or after divorce.