One of the enduring questions in the last 30 years has been the question about the effects of divorce on children. Our scientific and clinical understanding of this issue continues to increase (see my summary of these findings.)
I am always interested in how scientific results get presented in the popular press so I was eager to listen the the American Radioworks documentary on "divorced kids" that was recently released. (Nov 20, 2009). The main challenge in presenting this topic is capturing the complexity of the findings which generally show that although divorce does have negative effects on children in general, the effects are small and most children are not much different than children who grow up in families in which there has never been a divorce.
Many popular media either emphasize the negative effects of divorce or the lack of differences. In short, they rarely tell the more complicated story. "Divorced Kid" generally emphasizes the negative effects. The produced only interviews social scientists who have generally found the negative effects of divorce on children (Judith Wallerstein and Nicholas Wolfinger). Other scientists who have provided an alterative perspective such as Paul Amato, Mavis Hetherington, Robert Emery, and Constance Ahrons are not included.
Despite the general emphasis on the negative effects, this report does not overwhelming emphasize the negative impacts. The produced does interview a variety of adults whose parents divorced and captures the various paths to healthy relationships and good marriages that were found (including the producer's own marriage). She also explores the development of parenting programs for divorcing couples and the creation of services for children that have been created in the past 30 years to help families deal with divorce. She describes some of the court reform efforts to introduce mediation as a solution to divorce that have contributed to less high conflict processes of handling issues of custody and child support. There is still much work to be done in this area, but we have developed better services and supports for families going through divorce.
We have also learned much about marriage in the past 30 years and we have tools that can help newly marriage partners develop better strategies for dealing with conflict and developing strong relationships. The most damaging outcome for children of divorce is for them to conclude that their future is doomed or pre-ordained by this one life event. This is completely wrong and there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. The overwhelming evidence is in the other direction. Children from divorcing families can grow up to have healthy and satisfying lives. They may have to work harder, find extra supports from others and take advantage of educational or counseling services, but it is clearly possible.