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Divorce Helping Children Through the Crisis of the Separation
Divorce & Children continuing education psychologist CEUs

Section 9
The Influence of Control Beliefs on Children’s Post-Divorce Stress

CEU Question 9 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Early research conceptualized control beliefs as a bipolar, unidimensional construct (Lefcourt, 1976; Nowicki & Strickland, 1974; Rotter, 1966). External control belief was conceptualized as a generalized belief that outcomes are determined by external factors, whereas an internal control belief was conceptualized as the belief that outcomes are contingent on one's own responses. More recently, theoretically meaningful distinctions have been proposed for the multiple dimensions of children's control beliefs. Connell (1985) identified three dimensions of children's control beliefs that refer to the degree to which children report that outcomes are caused by themselves (internal), that outcomes are caused by other people (powerful others), or that the child does not know what causes outcomes to occur (unknown). This model separates external causes into two dimensions of "powerful others" and "unknown," based on Connell's finding in open-ended interviews that children often reported they "did not know" why events occurred.  A second distinction between control beliefs is control over positive and negative events. This distinction is important because research has shown that children make different causal explanations for good events and bad events (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).

Coping as Mediators of the Relations Between Control Beliefs and Children's Mental Health Problems
Control theorists (Lefcourt, 1976; Rotter, 1966) assert that persons with more internal control beliefs are less likely to have psychological problems because they use more active coping techniques to change the stressful situations. Illustratively, LaMontagne (1984) showed that children with internal control beliefs who were about to undergo surgery were more likely to use problem-focused techniques and to seek out information than those with external control beliefs. However, studies have not investigated how control beliefs relate to children's coping with the stressors that follow parental divorce. Postdivorce stressors present unique challenges because they often involve family changes that are beyond the child's direct control.  Several studies with children of divorce have indicated that coping by attempting to solve the problem and/or thinking more positively about it (active coping) is related to less psychological problems, whereas trying to stay away from the problem (avoidance coping) relates to more psychological problems (Armistead et al., 1990; Krantz et al., 1985; Kurdek & Sinclair, 1988). Illustratively, in a study of 8- to 12-year-old children of divorce, Sandler et al. (1994) found that avoidance coping was positively related to depression and active coping was negatively related to conduct problems in cross-sectional analyses.

Negative Appraisal as a Mediator of the Relations Between Control Beliefs and Children's Psychological Adjustment Problems
There is also evidence that control beliefs are related to negative appraisals for stressful events and that negative appraisals are related to mental health problems. The concept of negative appraisal is derived from Lazarus's (1991) model and refers to beliefs that an event has negative implications for an individual's well-being, goals, or values. For example, when a noncustodial parent misses a scheduled visit, a child who believes that the parent does not care about him or her is more likely to be upset than the child who believes that the missed visit was unintentional and that the parent will visit again in the future. Although there has been no research on control beliefs and negative appraisals for the stressors that follow divorce, there is evidence that children who are low on internal attributions for failure in academic tasks are more likely to make negative self-appraisals while dealing with failure in an academic situation. Diener and Dweck (1978) found that "helpless" children (who were low on internal "effort" beliefs to explain academic failure) were likely to make negative appraisals to explain their failure in academic tasks (e.g., "I am not smart"), whereas "mastery oriented" children (who were high on internal effort beliefs) focused on improving their performance. It may be that in an ambiguous but highly stressful situation, like parental divorce, information about the cause of events is particularly important to reduce stress. Not knowing why events occur may lead to negative appraisals and may make it more difficult to achieve secondary control through positive reinterpretations of the situation.  A number of studies found that negative appraisals for stressful events were associated with mental health problems for children of divorce (Grych, Seid, & Fincham, 1992; Krantz et al., 1985). Illustratively, Sheets et al. (1996) found that negative appraisals for a wide range of divorce-related stressors were correlated with higher psychological problems in cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses for a sample of children of divorce.

The main objective of this study was to investigate the relations between children's control beliefs and children's coping and appraisal, and to examine children's coping and appraisal as mediators of the relations between control beliefs and mental health problems in children of divorce. We found that control beliefs were related to coping and appraisals. We also found that negative appraisal, but not coping, mediated the relation between unknown control beliefs and children's self-reported mental health problems.

The first finding of this study is that unknown control beliefs were significantly related to higher mental health problems. This replicates similar findings with other populations, including depressed children and the general population (Weisz et al., 1989; Weisz et al., 1993; Weisz, Weiss, Wasserman, & Rintoul, 1987). This study adds the finding that the children's unknown control beliefs relate to higher parent-reported as well as child-reported symptoms and, therefore, cannot be accounted for by same informant method variance. Prior research using the multidimensional control belief scale has provided inconsistent evidence about the relations between internal control beliefs and children's symptoms (Seifer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1991; Weisz et al., 1989; Weisz et al., 1993; Weisz et al., 1987). Thus, the significance of this dimension of control beliefs requires further investigation. It may be that finer distinctions between kinds of internal control beliefs, such as effort versus ability (Diener & Dweck, 1978) or characterological versus behavioral (e.g. Janoff-Bulman, 1979), are critical to more fully understand how these beliefs affect coping and adjustment.

The pattern of positive relations of the control belief variables with active and avoidant coping is surprising. Unknown control and internal control beliefs predicted both active and avoidant coping. Because active coping generally is expected to be adaptive and avoidant coping generally is expected to be maladaptive, these results appear counterintuitive. The relation between internal control and active coping was expected, based on the theory that children who believe they can control events are more likely to directly engage in problem-solving behaviors to change stressful situations. Although the positive relation between internal control beliefs and avoidant coping theoretically is counterintuitive, Kliewer (1991) reported similar findings in a sample of elementary school children. She proposed that because the children were describing their coping with primarily uncontrollable stressors, avoidant coping might be adaptive in these situations, and particularly, cognitive avoidance might reflect their attempts to retain control over these situations. Further research is needed to explore how children with different control beliefs cope across controllable and uncontrollable situations. It may be that internal control beliefs predict the ability to select the most effective coping strategies in each situation (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman, 1982).

The second interesting finding was the pattern of relations between control beliefs, negative appraisal, and mental health problems.[5] In the path model, only unknown control for positive events had a significant path to higher negative appraisals. The pathway linking unknown control beliefs for positive events to child-reported mental health problems was mediated by negative appraisals of stressful events. This provides empirical evidence supporting one specific mechanism by which unknown control beliefs may affect children's mental health problems. It is interesting to speculate why children who are uncertain as to why events occur may generate more negative appraisals. It may be that children who do not understand why events occur are more likely to make personally threatening interpretations. For example, if children of divorce do not understand why some parents get along after divorce whereas others continue to argue, they may be more likely to believe that the arguments of their parents are attributable to something that they did. Knowing why events occur may provide children with a sense of secondary control (Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982) in which events are more predictable and understandable. This, in turn, may lower their level of stressful arousal and reduce the likelihood that they would develop personally threatening appraisals for events.

One implication from our findings is that there should be greater emphasis on helping children obtain a nonthreatening understanding of why events occur. This study suggests that the unknown dimension of control may be particularly relevant for children of divorce who encounter stressors that are often outside their realm of control (e.g., parental conflict, infrequent contact with dad, moving to a new home, etc.). An application of this is seen in a preventive intervention program developed by Pedro-Carroll and Cowen (1985) that taught children of divorce to distinguish between controllable and uncontrollable events. Because effective coping differs with the controllability of the event, programs are more likely to be effective if they can teach children how to cope with these two different types of events. Another important implication is that there should be a greater focus on reducing children's negative appraisals in preventive intervention programs for children of divorce. Research has repeatedly confirmed that negative cognition about the divorce, such as self-blame, overgeneralization, and pessimism, relate to more psychological problems (Krantz et al., 1985; Mazur, Wolchik, & Sandler, 1992). Moreover, this study showed that negative appraisals are particularly pronounced among children with high unknown control beliefs. Thus, one preventive intervention technique may involve helping children to understand what happens when parents divorce and teaching them not to make negative appraisals in stressful situations that are difficult to understand.
- Sandler, Irwin N.; Kim-Bae, Lauren S.; MacKinnon, David; Coping and Negative Appraisal as Mediators Between Control Beliefs and Psychological Symptoms in Children of Divorce; Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, Sep2000, Vol. 29 Issue 3
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information about the influence of control beliefs on children’s post-divorce stress.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 9
According to Sandler, why is it important for children have information about the cause of events? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet

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