Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Effect of Divorce on Children

Fear of abandonment as a mediator of the relations between divorce stressors and mother-child relationship quality and children's adjustment problems

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, August, 2002 by Sharlene A. Wolchik, Jenn-Yun Tein, Irwin N. Sandler, Kathryn W. Doyle

Although the negative effects of parental divorce on adjustment problems have been extensively documented, the processes through which divorce leads to these outcomes have not been well articulated. A considerable body of literature has identified both social--environmental and intrapersonal factors that affect the development of adjustment problems in children following parental divorce. However, studies have not examined pathways to the development of these adjustment problems that involve the joint influence of social--environmental and intrapersonal factors. Identification of such pathways has clear implications for theories of the etiology of adjustment problems for children following parental divorce and should provide guidance for the design of effective prevention and treatment programs. Given that over 1 million children in the United States experience parental divorce each year (Cherlin, 1992), the public health implications of such programs are significant.

This study uses a prospective longitudinal design to examine the plausibility of a model in which children's fear that they will not be cared for (i.e., fear of abandonment) mediates the relations between two empirically supported correlates of children's postdivorce adjustment problems: mother-child relationship quality and divorce stressors. First, the research on children's postdivorce adjustment problems is discussed. Next, the literature on the relations between divorce stressors, as well as mother-child relationship quality, and postdivorce adjustment problems is briefly reviewed, and the limited empirical work on fear of abandonment is discussed. Finally, plausible linkages between divorce stressors, mother-child relationship quality, fear of abandonment, and children's postdivorce adjustment problems are articulated and theoretical support for a mediational model is provided.


Potential adjustment and social adaptation problems of children who have experienced parental divorce include increased levels of aggression, depression, and anxiety; poor academic performance; school drop-out; peer relationship problems; drug and alcohol use; early sexual behavior; and adolescent pregnancy (e.g., Amato & Keith, 1991a; Hetherington et al., 1992). Although for some children the effects of this transition in family structure are mild and short lived, for other children, divorce leads to clinically significant and lasting adjustment problems during childhood and adolescence (see Amato & Keith, 1991a). Further, several longitudinal studies have shown elevated rates of mental health problems in adults who experienced parental divorce as children (e.g., Chase-Landale, Cherlin, & Kiernan, 1995; Rodgers, Power, & Hope, 1997; Ross & Mirowsky, 1999). For example, in a prospective study, Rodgers et al. found the odds ratio of being above the clinical level on mental health problems for parental divorce to be 1.70 at age 23 and 1.85 at age 33.

The research focused on predictors of variation in children's postdivorce adjustment problems has consistently found that two social--environmental factors, divorce stressors and custodial parent--child relationship quality, are significantly associated with postdivorce adjustment problems. It is well documented that divorce often involves a wide array of disruptions or stressors, including increased fights between parents, exposure to parental distress, changes in residence and schools, involvement with parents' new partners, and loss of time with one or both parents, as well as extended family members (e.g., Sandler, Wolchik, Braver, & Fogas, 1986). There is considerable evidence indicating a significant relation between divorce stressors and children's postdivorce adjustment problems (e.g., Sandler, Wolchik, Braver, & Fogas, 1991; Stolberg & Anker, 1983; Wolchik, Wilcox, Tein, & Sandler, 2000). It also is well documented that changes in parenting, such as decreased warmth and affection, poorer communication, and erratic discipline, commonly occur after divorce (e.g., Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Peterson & Zill, 1986; Simons et al., 1996). Researchers have consistently documented that high levels of warmth and affection in the custodial mother-child relationship are negatively related to postdivorce adjustment problems (e.g., Hetherington et al., 1992; Simons, Lin, Gordon, Conger, & Lorenz, 1999; Wolchik et al., 2000). Further, several researchers have shown that divorce stressors and mother--child relationship quality interact to affect children's postdivorce adjustment problems, such that the relation between divorce stressors and adjustment problems is mitigated at high levels of warmth and affection (e.g., Camara & Resnick, 1987; Wolchik et al., 2000).

The current study tests whether the effects of both of these social--environmental factors can be accounted for through a common mediating pathway, their joint effect on an intrapersonal factor, children's fear of being abandoned. From a motivational theory of stress and coping (Skinner & Wellborn, 1994, 1997), stressors affect children's adjustment problems because they threaten one or more of three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Sandler (2001) proposed that the effects of both stressors and protective resources work through their effects on children's perceptions of satisfaction of these basic needs. He proposed that stressors lead to higher adjustment problems by threatening basic need satisfaction, whereas protective resources reduce adjustment problems either by directly promoting need satisfaction or by decreasing the negative effects of stressors on need satisfaction. This paper proposes that postdivorce stressors particularly threaten one basic need, children's need to be part of a caring and stable social group (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and that the protective resource of a high quality relationship with the primary residential parent reduces this threat.

Several researchers have suggested that divorce threatens children's need to be part of a caring social group. For example, Kurdek and Berg (1987) note that children whose parents divorce may believe that they will lose contact with their residential, as well as nonresidential, parent. Similarly, Gardner (1976) observes that children who experience the departure of one parent from the home wonder what is to prevent the remaining parent from also leaving. Wallerstein (1985) notes that divorce can cause a pervasive sense of vulnerability for children as the protective, nurturing aspects of the family diminish. She also observes that children often experience fears of being lost in the shuffle and have concerns that their needs will be disregarded because their parents are so focused on their own needs.

Of the multiple theoretical perspectives that focus on central social relationships, the two most relevant to the current study are need for relatedness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and attachment (e.g., Bowlby, 1973, 1980). Although these theories differ in many respects, they converge in predicting that fear of being abandoned by one's primary caregivers leads to adjustment problems, and thus provide support for the importance of the model that is being tested. As articulated by Baumeister and Leary (1995), need for relatedness includes both a need for frequent personal contact that is primarily affectively positive and free from negative affect and a sense that an interpersonal bond characterized by affective concern will endure over time. From an attachment perspective, the hallmark of secure attachment involves open and relaxed communication between the parent and child and the perceived availability of and reliance on the attachment figure when distressed (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Increasing evidence suggests that humans have a need for a sense of felt security in their relationships with parents, peers, and intimate partners and that these relationships have significant influence on a variety of developmental and behavioral outcomes (see Bowlby, 1980; Bretherton & Munholland, 1999; Dozier, Stevenson, Lee, & Velligan, 1991). For example, Baumeister and Leary (1995) review evidence that individuals who lack a sense of belongingness experience higher levels of mental and physical illnesses, such as depression, somatic problems, and decreased immunocompetence. Further, researchers have demonstrated that insecure attachment serves as a risk factor for maladjustment in the context of risk factors from multiple domains, such as family stress and low child IQ (e.g., Greenberg, 1999).

It is important to note that the current study is not a test of either of these theoretical perspectives. Neither internal working models of attachment nor need for relatedness is assessed. Rather, children's fear of being abandoned, which is likely related to both attachment and need for relatedness, is examined. The limited empirical work on fear of abandonment has defined this construct as including worries about the stability of children's relationships with their parents, as well as continuity of living arrangements. Kurdek and Berg (1987) examined relations between several divorce-related beliefs (peer ridicule and avoidance, maternal blame, paternal blame, self-blame, hope for reunification, fear of abandonment) and mother, teacher, and child reports of adjustment problems. Only fear of abandonment was significantly related to children's reports of anxiety in their sample of White, middle class children. Using an inner-city, predominantly ethnic minority sample, Wolchik, Ramirez, Sandler, Fisher, Organ ista, and Brown (1993) examined the relations between children's postdivorce adjustment problems and fear of abandonment, paternal blame, maternal blame, and hope for reconciliation. Significant relations were found only for fear of abandonment, with higher scores being significantly related to both mother and child reports of children's adjustment problems.

At a theoretical level, it is plausible that the relations between divorce stressors and adjustment problems, as well as between mother-child relationship quality and adjustment problems, are mediated by fear of abandonment. As noted earlier, divorce often sets in motion a multitude of stressors and changes in the mother-child relationship. The experience of stressors that disrupt children's social connections to their primary residential or nonresidential parent, involve conflict between their parents, or indicate vulnerability of their parents is likely to create concerns about the ability or willingness of their family to continue to care for them. On the other hand, the interactions that occur in a high quality relationship between the child and the residential parent provide evidence that the child will be cared for and may either directly reduce concerns about being abandoned or mitigate the effects of divorce stressors on fear of abandonment.

The current study tests the plausibility of a model in which the relations between children's adjustment problems and both divorce stressors and mother-child relationship quality are accounted for by a common intrapersonal factor, children's fear that they will be abandoned. In this model, divorce stressors and mother-child relationship quality relate to fear of abandonment and fear of abandonment relates to adjustment problems. Further, the relations between divorce stressors and mother-child relationship quality and adjustment problems are mediated through fear of abandonment. Given empirical and theoretical work on the stress-mitigating effects of high quality mother-child relationships in divorced families (e.g., Camara & Resnick, 1987; Sandler, 2001; Wolchik et al., 2000), the model also tests whether divorce stressors and mother-child relationship quality interact to predict fear of abandonment. It was predicted that the relation between divorce stressors and fear of abandonment will be weaker for child ren with high mother-child relationship quality than that for children with low mother-child relationship quality.

Two methodological aspects of the current study are noteworthy. First, the study utilizes a prospective longitudinal design in which Time 1 divorce stressors, mother-child relationship quality, and fear of abandonment predict Time 2 adjustment problems, controlling for Time 1 adjustment problems. Because prospective longitudinal data satisfy the condition of time precedence, they are particularly useful in testing the plausibility of causal directionality between variables. Second, to reduce concerns that observed relations might be due to shared method variance across the measures or self-report negativity bias and to allow the examination of the robustness of the findings across models, mother as well as child reports of mother-child relationship quality and children's adjustment problems were used.



The sample consists of 216 children who experienced parental divorce within the previous 2 years and their primary residential mothers. These families were participants in the Divorce Adjustment Project (Sandler, Tein, & West, 1994), a longitudinal study of children's postdivorce psychological adjustment. The primary goal of this study was to identify short-term longitudinal correlates of postdivorce adjustment problems that could be used to guide the development of prevention programs for children who lived primarily with their mothers, the residential arrangement that characterizes 80% of divorced families (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1998). Thus, neither primary residential fathers nor noncustodial fathers were interviewed. The time period of 2 years was used given that restabilization of the family usually occurs 2-3 years after divorce (Hetherington, 1999). Only families who participated in both Time 1 and Time 2 assessments, which occurred 5.5 months apart, were included. The 5-month time interval was used b ecause it was long enough to allow for change in mental health problems and short enough to detect the prospective effects of stress and adaptation processes that occur at Time 1 (see Sandler et al., 1994; Sheets, Sandler, & West, 1996, for other examples of prospective longitudinal effects across this time period).

Court records were used to identify potential participants. A random sample of 1,236 families with children was identified from the countywide records of divorces granted in the last 2 years. Participation in the study was solicited by an initial mailing and a follow-up phone call. Forty-nine percent of selected families were reached by phone, and of these, 73% met the following eligibility criteria: the family contained a child between the ages of 8 and 12; the mother had not remarried and did not have a live-in partner; the child resided with her/his mother at least half the time; mother and child were fluent in English; the family lived in and expected to remain in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area for the study period; and child's residential status (i.e., primary residence with mother) was expected to remain stable over the study period. The primary reasons for ineligibility were that the mother had remarried (44%), the family had moved outside of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area (44%), and the child lived with the mother less than half of the time (9%). In families where there was more than one child in the targeted age range, one child was randomly selected to ensure independence of response.

Fifty-eight percent (n = 256) of the families who were eligible and invited to participate in the study participated in the Time 1 assessment. Children interviewed at Time 1 averaged 9.59 years of age (SD = 1.19); 44% were female. Eighty-six percent of the children had at least one sibling living with them. The majority of the mothers were Caucasian/non-Hispanic (87%); 9% were Hispanic, 2% were Black, and 3% were of another racial or ethnic background. Mothers averaged 35.3 years of age (SD = 5.5). Twenty-four percent of the mothers had completed college or attended graduate programs; 40% had taken some college courses or completed technical school; 28% had completed high school; and 8% had less than a high school education. Mother's average yearly income fell in the range of $20,001-$25,000. The average time since physical separation was 26.6 months (SD = 13.3); the average time since divorce was 13.4 months (SD = 6.5). In 63% of the families, the mothers had sole legal custody; the rest had joint legal cust ody. Mothers reported that 40% of the children typically had unrestricted contact with their fathers, 26% saw their fathers on a regular basis, 27% saw their father only occasionally, and 7% had no contact with their fathers at all.


Eighty-four percent (n = 216) of the families who completed the Time 1 assessment also completed the Time 2 assessment. The reasons that families attritted or were attritted from Time 2 assessment were (a) referral for treatment by project staff due to children scoring above the clinical cutoff on the Child Depression Inventory (Kovacs, 1981) or reporting current suicidal ideation (n = 19), (b) moving out of the Phoenix metropolitan area (n = 5), (c) becoming ineligible (n = 1), or (d) refusing to participate at Time 2 (n = 15). Demographic data, which were collected at Time 1, for those families who participated in both assessments are as follows: These children averaged 9.64 years of age at the first assessment (SD = 1.20); 44% were female. The majority of the mothers were Caucasian/non-Hispanic (86%); 9% were Hispanic, 2% were Black, and 3% were of another racial or ethnic background. Mothers averaged 35.5 years of age at the first assessment (SD = 5.7); 25% of them had completed college or attended gradua te programs; 39% had taken some college courses or completed technical school; 27% had completed high school; and 9% had less than a high school education. Mother's average yearly income fell in the range of $20,001-$25,000. The average time since physical separation was 26.3 months (SD = 13); the average time since divorce was 13.3 months (SD = 6.5). In 63% of the families, the mothers had sole legal custody; the rest had joint legal custody. Mothers reported that 41% of the children typically had unrestricted contact with their fathers, 26% saw their fathers on a regular basis, 26% saw their father only occasionally, and 6% had no contact with their fathers at all.

Attrition analyses were conducted on the Time 1 variables to compare families who completed the Time 2 assessment to those families who did not. Chi-square analyses were applied to test the categorical variables and t statistics were applied to test the continuous variables. Mothers from families who completed the Time 1 assessment but did not complete the Time 2 assessment were older (M = 35.54) than those who completed the Time 2 assessment (M = 33.80, t = 2.10, p < .05). Also, children from families who did not complete the Time 2 assessment reported higher fear of abandonment (M = 0.93), more divorce stressors (M = 4.55), and higher depression scores (M = 12.37) than children who completed the Time 2 assessment (M = 0.47, t = 2.76, p < .01; M = 3.12, t = 3.00, p < .01; and M = 6.22, t = 3.60, p < .01, respectively).


Mothers and children were interviewed separately by trained interviewers. After confidentiality was explained, mothers signed informed consent forms and children signed assent forms indicating their willingness to participate. Families received $50 compensation for each assessment.

Fear of Abandonment. Children completed the 6-item Fear of Abandonment subscale of the Children's Beliefs about Parental Divorce Scale (Kurdek & Berg, 1987). This subscale assesses concerns about the stability of relationships with parents and continuity of living arrangements. Responses are dichotomous (true; false). Kurdek and Berg obtained a 9-week stability coefficient of .52 for this subscale. Given the dichotomous response format and highly skewed responses, confirmatory analysis with MPlus (Muthen & Muthen, 1998) rather than Cronbach alpha was used to test the factor structure. A key feature of MPlus is its ability to model factor structure with response variables that are binary, nonnormally distributed, or both. The analysis showed that a 4-item measure fit the data, [chi square](df = 2) = 3.41, ns, better than the 6-item measure, [chi square](df = 9) = 28.52, p < .001. These results are consistent with the results of Kurdek and Berg's factor analysis that indicated that the two items included in the 6-item but not the 4-item scale had much lower factor loadings than the other items. The following four items were used: I worry that my parents will want to live without me; It's possible that my parents will never want to see me again; I worry that I will be left all alone; I think that one day I may have to live with a friend or relative. Reliability was assessed using a confirmatory factor analytic approach that incorporates both latent theoretical constructs and measured variables into a single structural equation model (Bollen, 1989; Hayduk, 1987). The average reliability (squared correlation of the observed variable and its latent variable) was .53. Thirty-three percent of the children endorsed one or more of the items (22% endorsed one item, 8% endorsed two items, 2% endorsed three items, and 1% endorsed four items).

Divorce Stressors. Children reported on the number of negative divorce events that occurred within the last 3 months on the Divorce Events Schedule for Children (DESC; Sandler et al., 1986), a "tailor-made" life events scale designed to assess a representative sample of stressors that children may experience after divorce. Child report was used because children are the best reporter of their awareness of the occurrence of negative events, and theoretically, awareness of stressful events is necessary for primary appraisals of threat, which leads to stress arousal (e.g., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For this scale, stressors were defined as events that typically occur to a child or in a child's environment following parental divorce and would generally be perceived as negative by the child. Knowledgeable key informants (i.e., parents and children who had experienced divorce, mental health professionals, and lawyers who worked with divorced families) identified over 200 events that they believed had an important im pact on children after divorce. The research team used these events to develop nonoverlapping events that did not involve a symptom of a psychological disorder or physical problem and were primarily beyond the child's control. This process yielded 62 events (see Sandler et al., 1986, for additional information on scale development). In a separate sample of children who had experienced parental divorce, children rated whether each event occurred within the past 3 months and whether the event was positive, neutral, or negative. To minimize possible contamination of participants' adjustment and their assessment of the valence of events (e.g., Monroe, 1982), scores were derived using consensually based classification (Sandler et al., 1991; i.e., events were classified as consensually negative or positive if 80% or more of the children in the scale development sample who had experienced the event rated it in that direction). Sixteen of the 62 events were consensually classified as negative; the number of negative events that occurred is the divorce stressors score. Similar to other life events scales, the events are heterogenous in content. Examples of negative events are "Relatives said bad things about mom/dad"; "Dad missed scheduled visits"; "Mom and dad argued in front of me"; "Parents physically hit/hurt each other"; "I had to give up pets/toys/things I like." The divorce stressor score correlates with internalizing and externalizing problems in cross-sectional and short-term longitudinal studies (Sandler et al., 1986, 1991). Two week test-retest reliability has been shown to be adequate (r = .85; Sandler, Wolchik, & Braver, 1988).


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