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Attachment theory is rooted in the biological concept that infants seek proximity to their parents or caregivers as a means to survive stressful or dangerous situations. In addition to providing protection and comfort when distressed, attachment figures offer children a secure base from which they can safely explore their environment.
Interactions between children and their caregivers are integrated into representational or internal working models that guide children’s understanding of current and future relationships, including expectations regarding the trustworthiness and predictability of others. Attachment security is fostered when children trust that their caregivers are accessible and capable of responding to their needs for safety. Perceiving caregivers as inconsistent, inaccessible, or unresponsive during difficult times results in what are called insecure parent– child attachment relationships. Working models tend to remain relatively stable throughout the life course, although they are flexible enough to accommodate new information and change accordingly. Parental divorce is a stressful time that may initiate such change.
During the divorce process, the quality of parent-child attachment relationships may decrease following real or perceived changes in their caregivers’ availability. As children struggle to cope, they often attempt to satisfy their needs for comfort by increasing proximity-seeking behaviors. Given the emotional challenges that parents face during a divorce, they may be less capable of serving as reliable, secure bases for their children. Life events such as divorce might also change children’s perceived expectations of caregivers’ availability and responsiveness. If children sense their caregivers as being overwhelmed by their divorce, although no actual change in behavior occurred, children may infer that their caregivers are less available. In these circumstances, children could begin to perceive others as less predictable and less capable of responding to their needs. Thus, children’s working models could change without any changes in the actual caregiving.
If a secure parent-child attachment relationship exists prior to divorce in which children perceive their caregivers as sensitively responsive, available, and accessible, children may fare better postdivorce. These children often seek comfort from their parents in order to recover from the stress of the loss. Parents can foster their children’s security during the separation and divorce by remaining open, communicative, and supportive. However, as parents are recovering from their own sense of loss, this can be challenging. At times, divorcing parents’ capacity to provide care to their children may be limited as a result of their own needs for care. Also, children who experience their caregivers as unresponsive, unavailable, and unable to meet their needs prior to the divorce are likely to perceive a divorce as further evidence of their parents’ untrustworthiness.
Divorce has varying effects on infants, young children, and adolescents because of differences in their stages of cognitive development. Infants may experience less disruption, because their cognitive skills are limited and the formation of attachment bonds is incomplete. By contrast, several factors directly influence the effects older children and adolescents experience as a result of parental divorce. Witnessing parental conflict often precipitates disruptions in attachment security, as well as additional nonattachment-related risk factors (for example, negative externalizing and internalizing behaviors). Parent-child attachment relationships are less likely to be disrupted when parents remain accessible and responsive to their children’s needs for comfort and reassurance throughout the separation process. Parents can facilitate resiliency in their offspring by being open, available, and comforting.
Effects of Divorce on Young Children
The effects of divorce may be less extensive during infancy because of infants’ early levels of cognitive development. Infants may be partially protected because they are simply unable to comprehend the situation on a cognitive level. Infants are also still learning the roles and saliency of important others in their lives. Given that attachment formation may not be complete at this age, separation is likely to be easier.
For young children in divorcing families, witnessing the dissolution of a parental relationship can be confusing. At an early age, these children observe that close relationships are fragile, thus threatening their sense of felt security. Children might develop fears related to parental abandonment. They might also become concerned that they caused the separation. Such fears commonly lead children to increase their proximityseeking behaviors. Children of divorced families may have less confidence in the abilities of their attachment figures to act as a secure base. This can occur because of real or perceived changes in parent-child attachment relationships. Parents may be less available to their children given their own needs for concern and support when coping with divorce-related stressors. Simply living apart from noncustodial parents can lead children to view their parents, correctly, as less accessible. Children may also become concerned that they are no longer acceptable to their attachment figures, just as their parents are seemingly no longer acceptable to each other.
Although distinctions are commonly made between divorced and intact families, it may not be divorce itself that carries the most risk. Parental conflict is thought to be the main contributor to the development of problems in childhood. When parents are able to maintain a consistent, supportive environment and engage in positive parenting practices, children are thought to experience less of a negative impact on attachment security. Other factors associated with a reduction in the effects of divorce on children’s attachment security include mother’s education and family income, perhaps because more education and income facilitate the type of internal and external resources necessary to maintain a positive environment.
Effects on Adolescents and Young Adults
Adolescence is a transitional time for attachment relationships. Changes in the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral systems begin to shift attachment allegiance from parent–child to peer and romantic adult attachment relationships. Adolescents’ abilities to manage their emotions improve, and they begin to rely less on their parents for comfort and support. Adolescents increase proximity-seeking behaviors with peers and romantic partners, and they begin to serve as attachment figures for peers and romantic partners, paving the way for their eventual attachments to their own offspring. However, adolescents often continue to seek out their parents in times of high distress.
Parental divorce can be highly stressful for adolescents. Adolescents may struggle to manage the numerous intense emotions they experience. As a result, they may seek one or both parents (attachment figures) for comfort and support. However, divorce-related stressors for parents can interfere with their ability to be consistently available and accessible to their adolescents. If adolescents perceive their parents as inaccessible or nonresponsive to their needs for support, they are left to seek others, often friends or romantic partners, or to attempt to regulate their emotions on their own. If this continues to occur over time, it can lead to the development of insecure parent-child attachment relationships, and if no other attachment figures are available, adolescents may begin to struggle to manage their emotions. As a result, they may withdraw or act out. Several research studies have demonstrated that adolescents from divorced families are more likely to be insecurely attached than adolescents from intact families. Girls are at greater risk than boys for being insecurely attached to their parents following a divorce. However, a secure attachment to one or both parents can foster resiliency to divorce by providing a secure base from which adolescents can openly process their thoughts and emotions. The quality of the parent–child relationship has been found to be a strong predictor of adolescents’ postdivorce adjustment.
Developmental and situational factors can lead to insecure attachment bonds between parents and adolescents. As children enter adolescence and their cognitive abilities (logical and abstract reasoning) improve, they begin to stop idealizing their parents and see them in both positive and negative ways. Adolescents become more aware of the relationship dynamics between their parents and form their own conclusions regarding their parents’ divorce. In addition, parents may be less inclined to protect adolescents than younger children from the behaviors of both parents (for example, affairs or nonpayment of child support). This, in turn, can change adolescents’ views of one or both of their parents or create resentment, reducing the likelihood of seeking that parent out in times of need.
As adolescents develop the emotional capacity to serve as attachment figures to their peers and romantic partners, it is possible for parents and adolescents to reverse roles and for divorcing parents to seek support from their children. Divorce can be emotionally difficult for some adults; adolescents may begin to serve as sources of comfort and support to their parents. These offspring may then feel the need to protect their parents from their own emotional struggles and look to others, such as peers or romantic partners, to get their needs met.
Changes in parent-child attachment relationships may also influence young adults’ close relationships outside the family. Research has shown that young adults from divorced families tend to experience more problems in romantic relationships than young adults from nondivorced families. Adults who have witnessed the dissolution of a parental relationship, particularly the extreme conflict that can accompany it, may integrate what they have learned from their parents’ relationships into their own ideas about relationship dynamics.
Adolescents’ developmental transformation leads them to become more independent of their parents and they begin to demonstrate less need for seeking proximity to their parents during times of stress. In cases of divorce, this may be an opportunity for adolescents to demonstrate their autonomy in terms of managing their intense emotions on their own. However, the emotions surrounding divorce may also overburden adolescents, whose strategies for managing emotions are still developing, making it difficult for adolescents to adjust to divorce without relying on their parents for support.
- Faber, Anthony and Andrea Wittenborn. “The Role of Attachment in Children’s Adjustment to Divorce and Remarriage.” Journal of Family Psychotherapy, v.21/2 (2010).
- Feeney, Brooke and Joan Monin. “An AttachmentTheoretical Perspective on Divorce.” In Handbook of Attachment, Jude Cassidy and Phillip Shaver, eds. New York: Guilford Press, 2008.
- Kelly, Joan and Robert Emery. “Children’s Adjustment Following Divorce: Risk and Resilience Perspectives.” Family Relations, v.52/4 (2003).
- Waters, Everett, Susan Merrick, Dominique Treboux, Judith Crowell, and Leah Albersheim. “Attachment Security in Infancy and Early Childhood: A Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study.” Child Development, v.71/3 (2000).