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January 11, 2001

Chances of children experiencing problems following divorce depend on mother’s parenting style, child’s temperament


A child’s likelihood of experiencing adjustment problems following divorce depends on the interaction of the child’s temperament and the quality of his or her mother’s parenting style, according to a new study by University of Washington and Arizona State University psychologists.

“We know divorce creates more stress for children because kids move, change schools and have an increase in short-term problems with their parents. This means children in divorced families are at greater risk of developing adjustment problems,” said Liliana Lengua, an assistant professor of psychology at the UW and lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology.

On average, children of divorce show somewhat more adjustment problems than children from non-divorced families, according to Lengua. The study showed that impulsive children appeared to be at greater risk for developing adjustment problems and depression if they had a mother who applied rules and discipline inconsistently.

“Impulsive kids need parents to create boundaries and enforce limits because they have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors on their own,” she said. In addition, highly impulsive children may have a harder time getting along with their parents, teachers and peers, and this can lead to low self-esteem, withdrawal from social interactions and depression.

The study also found that children who exhibit what’s called “high positive emotionality” – a measure of cheerfulness, laughing and smiling – seemed better able to handle maternal rejection. These children may have more positive interactions and relationships with other people that soften the impact of maternal rejection, she said. Rejection was defined as a child being made to feel not loved either by a mother showing a lack of affection or by giving the impression that the child is not valued

“This research is important because it can help parents work with their children and help us design interventions to work with children we know are at risk for developing problems,” said Lengua. “It will help us identify children at greater risk for developing problems when they are under stress. If we know a parent is going through a divorce we can ask about a child’s temperament before the child has a problem. The end goal is preventing problems and promoting positive adaptive qualities in children such as self-esteem and coping skills.”
The study involved the mothers and one child from 231 Arizona families, which had experienced divorce in the past two years. The children were between 9 and 12 years of age. The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Co-authors of the study were psychology professors Sharlene Wolchik, Irwin Sandler and Stephen West of the program for prevention research at Arizona State University.

Lengua said two follow-up studies she is conducting at the UW will help determine if these findings are specific to children of divorce or if they are part of normal development for all children. In addition, one of the studies is tracking 200 families for three years to see how long such problems may persist.

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For more information, contact Lengua at (206) 543-5655 or liliana@u.washington.edu