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When Divorce Is Best for the Children

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 1, 2000 -- Many couples have faced the agonizing decision of whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or risk hurting their children by divorcing. Here's some information that might make the choice a tiny bit easier: Research shows that, in the long run, divorce may be better for children than growing up in a family in which there is chronic discord.

The results of studies done over the past decade support the idea that most children of divorce do not become dysfunctional, Joan B. Kelly, PhD, writes in her review article, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Kelly is former director of the Northern California Mediation Center.

"If parents in high-conflict marriages can divorce and walk away from that conflict, or find a forum in which to have their arguments, such as mediation or the courts, then the kids probably will end up with a significantly improved home environment," Kelly tells WebMD.

But in families where there has been little obvious conflict between the parents, divorce may hit the kids much harder, she says.

"It is easy to explain divorce to children who have seen their parents fighting constantly, but when kids come from low-conflict homes they often don't have a clue what is wrong," she says. Kelly says this can create all kinds of anxiety in children: They don't escape from conflict, because they weren't aware of any within the family, but they lose the daily attention of both parents and usually lose economic resources as well.

Several studies published during the 1990s found that marital conflict was a more important factor in child development than divorce, Kelly writes. The intensity and frequency of the conflict between the parents, the way they handle the conflict, how it is resolved, and whether there were buffers to offset it all affected how well adjusted the children turned out to be.

Such buffers can include a good relationship with at least one of the parents and, perhaps most important, support from brothers and sisters. A 1992 study found that children growing up in high-conflict homes who had close relationships to their siblings were as well adjusted as children in low-conflict homes. A later study found that the value of a close relationship with brothers or sisters lasted throughout the teen years, with those who reported such relationships having higher self-esteem and better social relationships.

The studies also found that marital conflict hurts the quality of parenting. Mothers in high-conflict marriages may be less caring toward their children, more unpredictable and harsh in administering discipline, and may use more guilt- and anxiety-inducing techniques than mothers in low-conflict marriages. And fathers in combative marriages are more likely to withdraw from their parenting role.

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