Mediation and Moderation of Divorce Effects on Children’s Behavior Problems

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Using data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, we examined children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems from age 5 to 15 years in relation to whether they had experienced a parental divorce. Children from divorced families had more behavior problems compared with a propensity-score-matched sample of children from intact families, according to both teachers and mothers. They exhibited more internalizing and externalizing problems at the first assessment after the parents’ separation and at the last available assessment (age 11 years for teacher reports, or 15 years for mother reports). Divorce also predicted both short-term and long-term rank-order increases in behavior problems. Associations between divorce and child behavior problems were moderated by family income (assessed before the divorce) such that children from families with higher incomes prior to the separation had fewer internalizing problems than children from families with lower incomes prior to the separation. Higher levels of predivorce maternal sensitivity and child IQ also functioned as protective factors for children of divorce. Mediation analyses showed that children were more likely to exhibit behavior problems after the divorce if their postdivorce home environment was less supportive and stimulating, their mother was less sensitive and more depressed, and their household income was lower. We discuss avenues for intervention, particularly efforts to improve the quality of home environments in divorced families.