How does divorce affect children?
Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce. This legal ending of a marriage is considered one of life’s most stressful events. It can be especially traumatic for children. Observing the breakup of their parents’ marriage, dealing with one parent’s absence, and adjusting to life in two households can be incredibly challenging for children.
According to child psychologists, children of divorce tend to be at risk of emotional, psychological, and social problems, especially during the year or two immediately following the event. However, the degree to which any individual child is affected varies according to several factors. The home situation prior to the divorce makes a difference, as does the child’s age and personal characteristics. Additionally, the amount of ongoing conflict, the stability of the home environment, and the availability of a support network impact the child’s experience as well.
Divorce tends to be a turning point in the lives of children because life after a divorce is markedly different than life before. Sometimes this change is a positive one. For example, divorce may be beneficial to children who live in homes with domestic violence or for those with parents who often fight. But for most children, divorce is a negative event. These children may feel a great deal of pain, loneliness, anxiety, and emotional upheaval. As a result, they may act out in problematic ways although these behaviors are short-term in nature, as research suggests that most children adjust to their post-divorce lives within 24 to 36 months. However, for some children, these behaviors can last for the long-term.
According to psychologists, a child’s age at the time of divorce makes a difference in the child's experience. Young children and adolescents experience divorce much differently. In general, during and after a divorce, younger children feel and act more dependently toward the parents. Very young children, such as infants and toddlers, tend to feel confused. They may not understand what is happening but recognize that they are experiencing a loss. They may respond with anger that emerges in unforeseen ways. For example, some children experience intense separation anxiety. They whine, cry, throw temper tantrums, and act out with rage. Some children may revert to earlier behaviors by wetting the bed or otherwise disrupting their toilet training. Even children who are a little older, such as those in early elementary years, experience these feelings of anger and helplessness. They may become angry and withdrawn. They may be temporarily unable to engage in everyday self-care skills, such as dressing themselves.
Older children such as preteens and adolescents may respond in the opposite way. While these children may also experience feelings of abandonment and anger, they may become disillusioned with the idea of family. They become more independent and less engaged with their parents and siblings. Children in this age group are at high risk for extreme behaviors, such as skipping school, shoplifting, smoking, or experimenting with sex, drugs, or alcohol.
Of course, not all older children respond this way. Some older children may instead attempt to become “perfect” in an effort to bring their family back together. These children sometimes repress their feelings of anger and loss for a short time.
Resiliency is the ability to adapt to stress and adversity. For children of divorce, resiliency means demonstrating the ability to adapt positively to the stress of their new situation. It means being able to bounce back from the divorce without suffering long-term effects.
Resiliency is an important factor in how well children do after divorce. It impacts how quickly children are able to process the situation and deal with their feelings. Parents can help their children build resiliency by providing a supportive, protective environment in which children feel safe and loved. They can teach their children to have a strong, positive view of themselves.
The behavior of the divorcing parents and the quality of the parenting they are able to offer greatly influences their children's experience. If the divorcing parents engage in ongoing conflict and tension, the children tend to have a more difficult time. This is especially true if the parents are in a heated custody battle or try to force the children to take sides or turn against the other parent. Children should be shielded as much as possible from the struggles occurring between the adults.
Another issue that affects the long-term consequences of divorce involves the stability of the home life offered by the custodial parent, the parent with whom the child primarily lives. Unfortunately, divorce often results in serious economic problems for families. The reduction in income and the custodial parent's need to enter the workforce or work additional hours can dramatically change the children's home life. Whenever possible, parents should work to make sure their children live in a home where they feel adequately safe. They should have shelter, nutritious food, and clean clothing.
Additionally, children do better with routine. Parents should work to restore their child's sense of security by establishing routines, so the children know what to expect on a daily basis. Children should not have to guess about what is going to happen as they move from one home to the other.
Finally, a strong support system can make a huge difference. A professional counselor can offer children an outlet for their feelings. A counselor can also be a source of positive strategies for handling change. Extended family members, teachers, and peers can also provide a strong support system that allows children to overcome the initial stress and anxiety of the divorce and avoid long-term problems.
DeBord, Karen. “Focus on Kids: The Effects of Divorce on Children.” North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/pdfs/fcs471.pdf>
Hopf, Sarah Marie. “Risk and Resilience in Children Coping with Parental Divorce.” Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. < http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/spring-2010/risk-and-resilience-in-children-coping-with-parental-divorce#.VE6e9_l4p-I>
Pickhardt, Carl. E. “The Impact of Divorce on Young Children and Adolescents.” From Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence. Published in Psychology Today. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201112/the-impact-divorce-young-children-and-adolescents>
Utah State University. “What are the possible consequences of divorce for children?” Utah Divorce Orientation. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.divorce.usu.edu/files/uploads/Lesson5.pdf>