People are often aware that children who grow up in homes where there has been divorce have a bigger risk of facing problems in life. But what does that really mean?

The best recent estimates are that there are over one and a half million children each year who experience the divorce or permanent separation of their parents. Although most of these children do not end up with significant life difficulties, an increased proportion do, compared with others who grew up in homes where the parents stayed together. Some authorities, who focus on a statistic called an effect size, say that the difference between significant life adjustment problems in children of divorce versus others who grow up in intact families is actually quite small.

However, when this matter is looked at with the numbers and language that can be understood by just about everybody, the difference is quite striking. Approximately 20 to 25% of children who experienced the divorce or permanent separation of their parents go on to have significant life adjustment problems. In contrast, about 10% of children who grew up in intact families have such problems.

So, children who go through parental divorce or permanent separation are two to two and a half times more likely to suffer significant life problems than children who have not had the experience. That looks like a major difference to me. If that difference were much bigger, I think there would be numerous calls from certain realms of society to make divorce illegal.

Any professionals who work with children of divorce need to have a great deal of sympathy for their plight. For individuals doing therapy, empathy itself can be one of a number of therapeutic factors that might help the child and/or family change for the better.

However, for mental health professionals who need to evaluate what might be in the child’s best interest in terms of parental time sharing and related matters, empathy as a therapeutic factor is irrelevant. Evaluations are not therapy. Professionals who carry out evaluations should not carry out therapy with the same child or family.

Yet empathy for the child and family can and should play an important role for evaluators. The appropriate and potentially highly productive use of empathy in child custody and related evaluations is to provide motivation for evaluators to carry out multiple, highly challenging tasks that are intrinsic elements of the work.

These tasks include acquiring extensive scientific and professional knowledge, thoroughly learning and carrying out valid and relevant evaluation methods, and using careful deliberation to analyze the information that is collected. Empathy for the child and family can also help provide motivation for the frequently grueling task of writing a report for the attorneys and (usually) the judge that productively summarizes the evaluation process, makes recommendations that follow from the court Order, and gives clear rationale for those recommendations.

In some cases, there are questions about the specific procedures that are used in evaluations. Over the 20+ years that I have been conducting these evaluations, a lot of these questions have pertained to specific elements of psychological testing. At times, there are controversies about the specific psychological measures used. At other times, there were no controversies about the measures that were used, but there are questions about exactly how they were used, interpreted, and integrated with information from other evaluation procedures.

There is a great deal more unique, crucial information about these and related matters in my book Child Custody Evaluation: New Theoretical Applications and Research (Charles C Thomas Publishers). It can be purchased in paper and electronic form at Amazon or the publisher’s website.