For years, social scientists have believed that children of divorce have had more behavior problems than kids growing up in two-parent homes.
But the impact may not be as damaging as previously believed, according to new research to be released Friday.
Instead of comparing these youngsters to those with intact families - the usual methodology - a more accurate assessment would be to evaluate them before and after the marital dissolution, argues Alan Li of the RAND Corp.
Many of the problems could be a result of pre-existing personal characteristics that would be a factor in emotional and behavioral issues even if their parents had managed to remain married, said Li, who will present his findings this weekend at the annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, or CCF, at the University of Illinois Chicago.
"Many studies end up comparing apples and oranges," Li explained. "Personality, parenting strategies and detailed aspects of a person's biography all affect children, but researchers haven't been able to measure many of these constructs."
In addition, the report said, many earlier studies failed to take into account differences between families, such as parents' socioeconomic status and education, which can affect a youngster's well-being, whether a couple stays together or not.
When these variables are added to the mix, the psychological fallout is negligible, said Li, associate director of the Population Research Center for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit.
He drew upon a national sample of about 6,330 children between the ages of 4 and 15, whose mothers were surveyed repeatedly between 1979 and 2002.
Mothers filled out a 28-item checklist on whether their children engaged in conduct such as cheating, crying, arguing and breaking things. On average, less than half showed a one-item increase after divorce, which is not statistically significant.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian who has written extensively on marriage, called the findings provocative, adding that they could reframe the national debate on divorce.
To increase the odds of long and happy unions, states such as Oklahoma are funding marriage education programs, while others want to make divorce tougher. In Louisiana, for example, the waiting period for couples with children doubled from six months to one year.
However, these findings suggest that staying together at all costs may not be the best way to intervene, said Coontz, CCF's director of research.
Robert E. Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, takes issue with the conclusion. While Li may not have found increased negative behavior, less quantifiable is the hurt that can reverberate across a lifespan, he explained.
"For example, graduation and weddings can be turned into anxiety-ridden events for children whose parents are divorced . . ." Emery wrote in a response to Li's findings.
Closer to home, most experts agreed that it isn't the split but the discord attached to it that is so harmful.
In eight years as a mediator in the domestic relations division of Cook County, Ill., Circuit Court, Jeff Ginsburg has seen it all. "It never ceases to amaze me when divorcing parents cannot get past their anger with each other to decide what is in the best interest of their children."
Two periods of conflict surround dissolution, said Ginsburg, who is both a social worker and an attorney.
More about this in the Bradenton Herald.