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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Life-Span Adjustment of Children to Their Parents' Divorce
Paul R. Amato

Introduction

Children have always faced the threat of family disruption. In the past, death was more likely to disrupt families than was divorce. Around the turn of the century in the United States, about 25% of children experienced the death of a parent before age 15, compared with 7% or 8% who experienced parental divorce.1 As a result of the increase in longevity, the proportion of dependent children who lost a parent through death decreased during this century; currently, only about 5% of children are so affected. But the divorce rate increased over this same period, and at current rates, between two-fifths and two-thirds of all recent first marriages will end in divorce or separation.2 The high rate of marital dissolution means that about 40% of children will experience a parental divorce prior to the age of 16.3 Although a substantial risk of family disruption has always been present, today it is much more likely to be caused by divorce than by death.

Americans traditionally have believed that a two-parent family is necessary for the successful socialization and development of children. Consequently, it was assumed that parental death leads to many problems for children, such as delinquency, depression, and even suicide in later life—assumptions that appeared to be confirmed by early research.4

More recent studies indicate that, although parental death disadvantages children, the long-term consequences are not as severe as people once believed.5 Nevertheless, many social scientists assumed that children who "lost" a parent through divorce experienced serious problems similar to those experienced by children who lost a parent through death. Furthermore, whereas the death of a parent is usually unintended and unavoidable, marital dissolution is freely chosen by at least one parent. Consequently, the question of the impact of divorce on children took on moral overtones. These concerns, combined with the dramatic increase in the rate of divorce during the last few decades, resulted in a proliferation of studies on the effects of divorce on children.

This research literature does not always lead to firm conclusions. Many gaps exist in our knowledge, and weaknesses in study methodology mean that many findings are tentative at best. Nevertheless, a consensus is beginning to emerge among social scientists about the consequences of divorce for children. And, in spite of its limitations, this knowledge can help to inform policies designed to improve the well-being of children involved in parental marital dissolution.