How Much Does Divorce Affect Kids?

A middle-aged couple from suburban Chicago recently walked into psychologist M. David Royko's office armed with books on divorce.

The wife, who wanted to a divorce, cited a newly released book that says conventional wisdom has overstated divorce's long-term negative consequences.

The husband, who wanted to reconcile for the sake of their two school-aged children, stood by a 2000 book that paints a darker picture of divorce's legacy — children who may appear normal, but who have difficulty creating and maintaining intimate relationships.

Royko, director of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., Marriage and Family Counseling Service, has seen a lot of that lately. Divorcing spouses have always used research as ammunition, he says, but lately the debates have focused on these two books: E. Mavis Hetherington's 2002 For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered and Judith Wallerstein's 2000 The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study.

"If you've got two parents coming in through mediation, you've got two parents armed," he said.

Two Theories; High Stakes

The publication of Hetherington's book in January has sparked debate about the true extent of divorce's psychological damage, particularly on kids.

The stakes are high, because divorcing families have included more than a million children every year from 1972 to 1990, the most recent year for which such a figure is available, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Wallerstein estimates that divorced parents raised a quarter of the current adult population between ages 18 and 34.

Most psychologists, including Hetherington and Wallerstein, agree children are initially hard hit by divorce, with some variation based upon age of the kids, and often have higher rates of divorce and other difficulties.

But the two books — each based on decades of interviews and studies of dozens of middle-class, divorced families and their kids, as well as intact families and theirs — differ on the percentage, types and depth of the problems.

A sizable majority of parents and children of divorce responding by e-mail to an ABCNEWS.com query felt divorce had a long-term negative impact on the lives and psyches of the kids, though some disagreed.

Click here to read more of their thoughts on the issue.

Hetherington: Negative Effects Exaggerated

Hetherington, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, found up to 25 percent of children with divorced parents "have serious social, emotional or psychological problems" in the long term, compared to 10 percent of children from intact families.

For many kids, however, she found widespread initial wounds right after the divorce can be overcome — with a small minority, more often girls, ultimately even emerging from their parents' divorce stronger and more self-reliant than kids from intact families.

"Negative long-term effects have been exaggerated to the point where we now have created a self-fulfilling prophecy," wrote Hetherington and the co-author of her book, John Kelly, a journalist. "At the end of my study, a fair number of my adult children of divorce described themselves as permanently 'scarred.'

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