Effects of Divorce on Children’s Social and Emotional Development

Learning Resources 

Required Readings

Clarke-Stewart, A., & Parke, R. D. (2014). Social development (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Chapter 7, “Family: Early and Enduring Influences” (pp. 188–222)
Social Development, 2nd Edition by Clarke-Stewart, A.; Parke, R. D. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons – Books. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons – Books via the Copyright Clearance Center.

Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., & Wyatt, T. (2015). The socialization of emotional competence. In J. Grusec & P. Hastings (Eds.), The handbook of socialization (2nd ed., pp. 590–613). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Handbook of Socialization, 2nd Edition by Grusec, J.; Hastings, P. Copyright 2015 by Guilford Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Guilford Publications, Inc. via the Copyright Clearance Center.

Dunsmore, J. C., Her, P., Halberstadt, A., & Perez-Rivera, M. B. (2009). Parents’ beliefs about emotions and children’s recognition of parents’ emotions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 33(2), 121–140.

Hoyt, W. T., Fincham, F. D., McCullough, M. E., Maio, G., & Davila, J. (2005). Responses to interpersonal transgressions in families: Forgivingness, forgivability, and relationship-specific effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(3), 375–394.

Apted, M., & Lewis, C. (Producers). (2013). 56 up [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: ITV Studios.

Discussion: Effects of Divorce on Children’s Social and Emotional Development

Many parents who divorce are concerned about the implications of their decision for their children. Scientists have also wondered about the effect of divorce on children and have conducted many studies addressing that question. Judith Wallerstein was the principal investigator on a groundbreaking study of families experiencing divorce. Wallerstein, who from 1966 to 1992 was a senior lecturer at University of California at Berkeley as well as a researcher and practitioner, received a grant for a short-term study to examine how healthy people living in the best of circumstances coped with divorce. Her desire in conducting this study was to help others cope with divorce. Wallerstein’s study was one of the first studies that documented the short- and long-term effects that families of divorce experience, making her work deserving of our attention here.

Initially, Wallerstein began her study with two beliefs that were prevailing at the time in the early 1970s:

  1. Divorce was a brief crisis that would resolve itself.      In other words, “time heals all wounds.”
  2. The divorce rate would drop.

Wallerstein’s study involved 60 families with 131 children of varying ages (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). The families who participated in the study had just recently decided to divorce; they were contacted through letters distributed by divorce attorneys inviting the families to participate.

The sample was a homogeneous group of well-educated, white, middle- to upper-class parents with no documented emotional problems prior to the divorce. Wallerstein chose this sample because, in many cases, these families were considered to be “divorced under the best circumstances.” She thought that a group of healthy, privileged people who had little stress other than divorce would successfully work out their problems, and by studying these families, she could pass along the insight she learned to other families in similar situations. Having this sample of families allowed Wallerstein to examine the effects of divorce on families without factors such as poverty and racism that make coping with a divorce more difficult. Further:

  • None of the adults had a history of emotional      disturbance; if they did, they were not allowed to be a part of the study.
  • The children in the study were at an appropriate grade      level in school and had not been referred for mental health services.

In general, these families were functioning well prior to the divorce.

Wallerstein initially expected the study to end in a year. Surprisingly, when she conducted a follow-up study at 18 months post-divorce, a length of time in which she expected individuals would have readjusted from the divorce, she found that most families were still in crisis. Many parents were still angry, and their lives were not back together. Similarly, a number of children “seemed to be on a downward course.” For example, their relationships with peers worsened, and some were having behavior problems at school.

Because of the upheaval still evident in many of these families’ lives, Wallerstein received funds to study these families for another 5 years. Over 90% of the families agreed to continue participating in the study.

Five years after beginning the study, Wallerstein found the following:


Wallerstein’s    Long-Term Findings


Child    Findings

Parent    Findings


  • 33% of the children were doing well. They were        successfully maintaining positive relationships with both parents and        had no school or peer problems.
  • 40% of the children were significantly worse off than        before the divorce, including acting out, sleep problems, and peer and        school problems.
  • The majority of children still hoped their parents        would reunite, even in the face of their parents’ remarriages.
  • The majority of children felt that their parents had        given priority to their needs over their children’s needs.
  • 75% of women were more content with life than before        the divorce, compared to 50% of men.
  • 50% of men and 25% of women felt just as unhappy or        more unhappy since the divorce.

Based on these findings, Wallerstein decided to seek funds for a 10-year follow-up of these families. Conventional wisdom around divorce says that as parents put their lives back together, children’s lives will also improve. That is not what Wallerstein found, however. Circumstances that enrich an adult’s life do not necessarily trickle down to the children. In fact, only 1 in 10 children in the study experienced relief when their parents divorced.

Wallerstein’s study was groundbreaking in its exploration of the effects of divorce on children’s social and emotional development. For this Discussion, you explore what research has found since this seminal study.

To Prepare:

  • Choose two of the following aspects of social and      emotional development:
    • Relationship with and interactions between mother,       father, siblings
    • Quality of peer relationships
    • Empathy
    • Expression of emotion
    • Emotion regulation (e.g., impulse control)
    • Romantic relationship formation/success
  • Choose a developmental stage to focus on in this      Discussion (e.g., preschool years, middle childhood, adolescence, emerging      adulthood). (Note: If you choose emerging adulthood, please make      sure you focus on the development of individuals 18–25 whose parents are      divorcing.)
  • Consider how divorce has been shown to impact that      aspect of development in the short and long term.

By Day 4

Post an analysis of how divorce has been shown to impact the aspect of social and emotional development that you selected, both within the first 2 years after the divorce as well as long term (e.g., into adulthood). Reference at least two peer-reviewed articles beyond this week’s Learning Resources to support the arguments you present in your post.


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