Buros-Nebraska Series on Measurement and Testing


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Family Assessment, ed. Jane Close Conoley & Elaine Buterick Werth (Lincoln, NE: Buros Institute of Mental Measurements, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1995).


Copyright © 1995 by Buros Institute of Mental Measurements. Digital Edition copyright © 2012 Buros Center for Testing.


The divorce rate in the United States has been increasing steadily for the last century, from 7% of first marriages in 1880 to over 50% in recent decades (Weed, 1980). Even though the divorce rate leveled off in the 1980s, current estimates indicate that nearly two-thirds (64%) of all first marriages will end in divorce or permanent separation (Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Currently, more than one million children experience parental divorce every year in this country (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989, p. 92). This increase in the likelihood of marital disruption, and the large number of children involved, has generated public concern about the consequences of divorce for children's well being.

People who hold traditional attitudes believe that a two-parent family is necessary to ensure children's successful socialization and development. Consequently, traditionalists see any departure from the two-parent family as necessarily being problematic. Several observers have criticized this perspective, referred to as a "family deficit model," as being simplistic (Demo, 1992; Marotz-Baden, Adams, Buech, Mlmro, & Munro, 1979). They point out that alternative family forms, such as single-parent families, can serve as successful environments for children's development. In recent years, ideological debates over divorce and single-parent families have appeared in both the popular press and academic journals (see Etzioni, 1992, for a discussion).

Nevertheless, in spite of the debate at the ideological level, good reasons exist for assuming that parental divorce has the potential to create problems for many children.

First, both mothers and fathers are important resources for children. Research has consistently shown that a high level of parental support and a moderate level of parental control and supervision promote children's development and well-being (Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Rollins & Thomas, 1979). As such, the departure of one parentusually the father-from the household following marital dissolution represents the loss of a potentially important resource for children. Furthermore, for a period of time following divorce, custodial mothers tend to be less affectionate toward their children and punish them more severely and less consistently than do married mothers (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982). Divorce also exposes children to high levels of interparental conflict-both prior to and following marital disruption. Not surprisingly, research shows that interparental conflict is associated with deficits in children's well-being, regardless of family type (Emery, 1982). In addition, children living with custodial mothers are likely to experience economic hardship (Weitzman, 1985). Finally, divorce initiates a series of life changes (such as moving and changing schools) that may be stressful to children. Any of these factors- parental loss, poor quality parenting, interparental conflict, economic hardship, and stressful life changes-might place children of divorce at increased risk for a variety of problems.

During the last three decades, psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists have carried out a large number of studies dealing with the impact of divorce on children. Several scholars have reviewed this literature in a qualitative fashion (e.g., Emery, 1988; Demo & Acock, 1988). More recently, Bruce Keith and I carried out a meta-analysis of 92 of these studies (Amato & Keith, 1991a). Our meta-analysis showed that children of divorce, compared with children in continuously intact two-parent families, score slightly but significantly lower on measures of academic ability, conduct, psychological adjustment, self-esteem, and social competence. Divorce is also associated with poorer quality mother-child and father-child relationships.

These results would appear to indicate that divorce has broad negative implications for children's functioning and well-being. However, as we noted in the meta-analysis, many of these studies contain serious methodological limitations. To assess how methodological factors might affect study results, we created a simple index of study quality based on the following criteria: (a) a random selection of children, (b) a large sample size (defined as being greater than the median), (c) the use of appropriate control variables in analyses (or the matching of subjects on relevant variables), and (d) the use of multiple- rather than single-item measures of outcomes. Curiously, we found a tendency for methodologically weak studies to show stronger effect sizes than methodologically strong studies-at least in relation to measures of academic achievement and conduct (Amato & Keith, 1991a).

I attribute this finding to the "publish if significant" effect. Assume that journal editors accept manuscripts for publication if they are methodologically strong or if they show significant effects, all things being equal. If this is the case, then methodologically strong manuscripts may be published even if they show small or non-significant differences between groups. On the other hand, methodologically weak manuscripts get accepted for publication only if they show a relatively large and significant difference between groups. As a result of this process, across a large number of studies, poorer quality studies will show more deleterious effects of divorce, on average, than better quality studies.

Unfortunately, most studies of divorce cluster near the lower end of our study quality index. To illustrate this point, I used the 92 studies from the meta-analysis and added another 37 studies based on samples of divorced children only (studies not included in the meta-analysis). Of these studies, 92 (71%) have scores of 0, I, or 2. Correspondingly, 26 studies (20%) have a score of 3 and only 11 studies (9%) have a perfect score of 4. This suggests that there is room for additional work on this topic-work that improves methodologically on studies conducted thus far.