Things didn’t go right with Sam and Bob. After making repeated attempts to save their marriage for the sake of their two children, they decided to part ways. But the couple was worried about the future of their children, and how their decision to divorce would impact the little souls.
Divorce is the most difficult phase of a married couple’s life. As adults, they might eventually get over the tough period, but children become a collateral casualty. Their minds are tender and can slip into a state of shock on seeing parents split forever.
The adverse effects of divorce can be long-lasting on children and may impact their own relationships. Studies have shown that in the US, the daughters of divorced parents have a 60% higher divorce rate than those of non-divorced parents. The number is 35% for sons (1).
In this post, MomJunction explains the ordeal children go through when their parents get divorced.
The Short-Term Effects Of Divorce On Children:
Children who witness a divorce could be disturbed by the thought of not seeing their parents together again. Following are some of the immediate short-term effects of divorce on children:
- Anxiety: The aftermath of a divorce causes the child to become tense, nervous, and anxious. Young children are more prone to it than the older ones since they are heavily dependent on both the parents. An anxious child will find it difficult to concentrate on his studies and may lose interest in activities that he once found enticing.
- Constant stress: According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, many children falsely consider themselves the reason behind their parents’ divorce and assume the responsibility to mend the relationship (2). This can lead to immense stress and pressure on the young mind, which can have several repercussions like negative thoughts and nightmares.
- Mood swings and irritability: Young children may suffer from mood swings and become irritable even when interacting with familiar people. Some children will go into a withdrawal mode, where they stop talking to anyone and shut themselves away. The child will become quiet and prefer spending time alone.
- Intense sadness: Acute sadness rushes through the heart and mind of the child. Nothing feels good in life, and the child may eventually plunge into depression, which is a long-term manifestation of this sadness.
- Disillusion and distress: Children of divorce may feel hopeless and disillusioned because they do not have the comprehensive emotional support from their parents. This situation can become worse if the child is looked after by a single parent with no access to the other parent.
Short-term effects of divorce can hamper a child’s psychological and physiological growth, which can have a long-term impact.
[ Read: Co-Parenting After Divorce ]
Long-Term Effects Of Divorce On Children:
Things can get rough for a child, who sees his parents bicker and separate. Their minds are still plastic that is they can easily get affected by the events happening around them. Following are the long-term effects of divorce on children:
6. Behavioral and social problems:
A child is at a greater risk of developing violent and antisocial behavior when the parents divorce. He or she may lose temper at the drop of a hat and show no hesitation assaulting someone. In the long run, it may lead to the development of a criminal mindset, especially during the adolescent years. Studies show that most children of divorce display the characteristic traits of aggression and disobedience with varying degree of intensity (3). Extreme cases of these conditions make the child a social misfit.
7. Trouble with relationships:
When children grow seeing a marriage fail, they develop doubts about love and harmony in a relationship. They have trust issues and find it challenging to resolve conflicts in a relationship. Such children, as adults, will start any relationship with a negative mindset.
8. Prone to substance abuse:
Drugs and alcohol become the avenues for adolescents to vent out their frustration and anxiety. Research has shown a higher incidence of substance abuse in teens whose parents are divorced (4). Of course, there are other factors like the care provided by the single parent, which determine the adolescent’s tendency to have drugs. However, the probability of an adolescent succumbing to the temptation is considerably high. Long-term substance abuse has damaging effects on the well-being of the child.
The feeling of anguish and heartbreak caused by parents’ divorce can make a child slip into depression. Depression is a mental health problem, and children who witness divorce have a higher incidence of depression and social withdrawal. Researchers note that divorce can be a contributing factor in cases of bipolar disorder observed in children (5).
10. Poor education and socio-economic position:
The adverse psychological effects of divorce diminish a child’s interest in education. Children who experience the divorce of their parents show a drastic drop in their school grades (6). It can significantly impede a child’s ability to learn at school and college. A stunted progress in education hampers career prospects of the child as an adult, which make it difficult to have a decent socio-economic status.
Divorce can take a toll on the children’s mental and physical health, but sometimes, separated parents are far better than quarreling parents. Don’t be surprised.
[ Read: Negative Effects Of Single Parenting ]
The Positive Side Of Divorce:
Divorce is not limited just to the couple but extends to the entire family. The effects are long lasting. Despite the melancholy associated with it, there is a positive way to look at divorce from a child’s point of view.
Note that these positive effects are in comparison to a family of bickering parents and not a normal family with loving parents.
1. Happy parents denote a happy child:
The child no longer has to experience a tense atmosphere at home as mom and dad will no more quarrel. As they are no longer greeted by arguments, they return home from school or college with a positive mindset. It also ensures that the child does not wander away with a bad company to avoid squabbling parents at home.
2. The child could be less prone to addiction:
The deed is done and over. It means, the separated parents can now focus on the children as the task of getting divorced is completed. The kid does not have to rely on pseudo-comforters like drugs and alcohol.
3. The child spends quality time with parents:
If the child is free to shuttle between the houses of his both parents, then he may spend fruitful time. His interactions are no longer interpreted by an argument, and he can pour his heart out freely. It also gives each parent an opportunity to divide the responsibility equally, and still be the caring mom or dad that they have been.
4. Better grades:
Research has shown that divorce can help a child study better and improve his grades since he no longer has the baggage of quarreling parents back home (7). Also, each parent dedicates their time for the child’s homework and studies.
5. Children may not repeat their parents’ mistakes:
What happens when you see your parents’ marriage fail? You get the best life lesson on managing relationships. Studies about positive effects of divorce have shown that children who witness the split of their parents can show maturity and patience while managing conflicts in their relationships. They communicate better and always strive to be good by not repeating the mistakes of their parents (8).
This could be a positive way of looking at a divorce, if that is imminent. The child’s reaction to their parents’ decision depends on various factors such as the age of the child and gender.
[ Read: Helping Your Child Through Divorce ]
Factors That Determine A Child’s Reaction To Divorce:
Following are some of the factors that play a significant role in the way a divorce affects the child:
Divorce affects boys and girls equally, but in some cases, a particular gender may show a more adverse reaction than the other. For example, depression due to divorce is higher in boys than in girls. On the other hand, girls have a greater tendency to develop severe behavioral problems (9). Overall, divorce has identical and equivalent levels of psychological reactions among children of both genders.
The age of the child plays a critical role in the way he/she reacts to the split of their parents:
- An infant is too young to understand a divorce, so it is only when the child is a toddler that the separation starts making a difference.
- The effects of divorce on a toddler are elementary yet may grow profound. A toddler observes that one parent is not part of his or her life anymore, but does not understand the reason. The child may insist on meeting the other parent, and will throw a tantrum for it.
- Toddlers can feel nervous, become clingy, and cry when missing the other parent, or when they find the absence of a parent confusing.
[ Read: Parenting Problems And Solutions ]
ii) Early schooler:
- The child can comprehend that something is wrong in the relationship of his mother and father. He can connect the split with the relationship problem, but may not discern the purpose of a divorce.
- Early schoolers easily get anxious and stressed when they realize he/she is not going to live with both the parents anymore.
- May show poor appetite, loss of interest in playing with friends, and would request the guardian parent to get back together with the other parent.
- Preteen can interpret divorce but will oppose or resist accepting it. He/she may repeatedly sneak out from the guardian parent to meet the other parent, and argue if caught.
- Will show poor grades and loss of interest in studies. He will also grow irritable on trivial matters.
- The child may consider himself as the cause of the divorce and will try to reunite his parents.
- Adolescents/teenagers understand divorce and have clear cognition of the reasons behind it. Due to this, they are most likely to feel emotionally upset on seeing their parents go separate ways.
- An adolescent will suffer poor grades, withdraw from his current friend circle, and may cut off his relatives as well. He/she may also stop speaking to one or both the parents due to anger and frustration.
- May show first signs of inclination towards substance abuse like addiction towards alcohol and narcotics. Also, if in a relationship of his/her own, then they will tend to be abusive and quarrelsome due to stress.
3. Availability of emotional support:
If the child has a backup emotional support system, then he is less likely to display any inimical effects of divorce of his parents. The emotional support could range from having a supportive sibling to grandparents that foster the child while the biological parents resolve the divorce. In some cases, the single parent may handle the situation in a calm and rational manner, which can ensure that the child does not suffer any adverse influence of the divorce.
It is clear that suffering is inescapable for the child, but you can make an effort to mitigate it.
[ Read: Signs Of A Bad Parent ]
How To Mitigate A Child’s Suffering In A Divorce:
It is okay for a wife and husband to split, but a mother and father must always stay together for the sake of their children. Perhaps the best way to prevent a child from suffering is to resolve the conflict and get back together as a happy family. However, if that is not possible, following are some tips to keep the little one mentally strong:
1. Do not keep the impending divorce a secret:
Revealing an imminent divorce at the last moment can confuse and shock the child. Inform the child about your decision way before you arrive at it. Tell him than mom and dad have decided to live separately, and he/she is not the reason behind it. Do not demean or blame your partner for the divorce, and keep your words child-friendly.
2. Continue to stay involved as parents:
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that the children of divorce do better when the parents continue to remain involved in their upbringing. Despite the divorce, ensure you celebrate all important family events, especially your child’s birthday, together. Continue to guide your child as a parent so that he/she has a healthy childhood. Tell them that your decision should not influence their life and that they continue to have a normal with activities like going to school, studying, and playing with friends.
3. Maintain a healthy routine:
This is applicable especially to toddlers and preschoolers. Do not let divorce disrupt the routine of your child when he/ she is a toddler or an infant. Keep feeding, bathing, and sleeping, all at the same time like it was before. Cuddle with the child and make it a point to spend quality time. It will all bring a sense of normalcy in the life of the child.
[ Read: Tips To Become Good Parent ]
4. Avoid long and murky custody disputes:
A custody dispute is the ugly legal spat between divorcing couples about the guardianship rights of the child. It is settled in a court of law and can take an awfully long time to resolve. Children can find the experience stressful especially if the court puts the onus on the child, by asking him/her to choose one parent. To prevent agony to the child, keep him/her out of any legal proceedings. Instead, opt to nurture the child together as parents, despite splitting as a couple.
5. Do not forbid meetings with the other parent:
If you win the custody of the child, then do not restrict or prevent the child from meeting the other parent. Remember, your ex-spouse is still the biological parent of your child and has as much right as you do. When children have access to both parents, they have a normal childhood, even if the parents do not live together under the same roof.
These tips can help prevent long-term mental scarring of the child, and let him have a happy and normal childhood.
[ Read: Tips For Improving Relationship With Kids After Divorce ]
Divorce is a bitter pill for you and your children. But if you have no other option but to opt for it, make sure your kids are not affected in the melee. They have a long way to go in their life and your divorce cannot be an impediment to their growth.
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Latest posts by Rohit Garoo (see all)
Many of the 1.5 million children in the U.S. whose parents divorce every year feel as if their worlds are falling apart. Divorcing parents are usually very concerned about the welfare of their children during this troublesome process. Some parents are so worried that they remain in unhappy marriages, believing it will protect their offspring from the trauma of divorce.
Yet parents who split have reasons for hope. Researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or, later, as adults. In this column, we discuss these findings as well as factors that may protect children from the potentially harmful effects of divorce.
Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly after the initial blow. In a 2002 study psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce, especially anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear by the end of the second year. Only a minority of kids suffer longer.
Most children of divorce also do well in the longer term. In a quantitative review of the literature in 2001, sociologist Paul R. Amato, then at Pennsylvania State University, examined the possible effects on children several years after a divorce. The studies compared children of married parents with those who experienced divorce at different ages. The investigators followed these kids into later childhood, adolescence or the teenage years, assessing their academic achievement, emotional and behavior problems, delinquency, self-concept and social relationships. On average, the studies found only very small differences on all these measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families, suggesting that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.
Researchers have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after a divorce are associated with poorer adjustment in children. The effects of conflict before the separation, however, may be the reverse in some cases. In a 1985 study Hetherington and her associates reported that some children who are exposed to high levels of marital discord prior to divorce adjust better than children who experience low levels. Apparently when marital conflict is muted, children are often unprepared when told about the upcoming divorce. They are surprised, perhaps even terrified, by the news. In addition, children from high-discord families may experience the divorce as a welcome relief from their parents' fighting.
Taken together, the findings suggest that only a small percentage of young people experience divorce-related problems. Even here the causes of these lingering difficulties remain uncertain. Some troubles may arise from conflict between Mom and Dad associated with the divorce. The stress of the situation can also cause the quality of parenting to suffer. Divorce frequently contributes to depression, anxiety or substance abuse in one or both parents and may bring about difficulties in balancing work and child rearing. These problems can impair a parent's ability to offer children stability and love when they are most in need.
The experience of divorce can also create problems that do not appear until the late teenage years or adulthood. In 2000 in a book entitled The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Judith Wallerstein, then at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues present detailed case studies suggesting that most adults who were children of divorce experience serious problems such as depression and relationship issues.
Yet scientific research does not support the view that problems in adulthood are prevalent; it instead demonstrates that most children of divorce become well-adjusted adults. For example, in a 2002 book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, Hetherington and her co-author, journalist John Kelly, describe a 25-year study in which Hetherington followed children of divorce and children of parents who stayed together. She found that 25 percent of the adults whose parents had divorced experienced serious social, emotional or psychological troubles compared with 10 percent of those whose parents remained together. These findings suggest that only 15 percent of adult children of divorce experience problems over and above those from stable families. No one knows whether this difference is caused by the divorce itself or by variables, such as poorer parenting, that often accompany a marriage's dissolution.
In a review article in 2003, psychologists Joan B. Kelly of Corte Madera, Calif., and Robert E. Emery of the University of Virginia concluded that the relationships of adults whose parents' marriages failed do tend to be somewhat more problematic than those of children from stable homes. For instance, people whose parents split when they were young experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages. On all other measures, differences between the two groups were small.
Even though children of divorce generally do well, a number of factors can reduce the problems they might experience. Children fare better if parents can limit conflict associated with the divorce process or minimize the child's exposure to it. Further, children who live in the custody of at least one well-functioning parent do better than those whose primary parent is doing poorly. In the latter situation, the maladjusted parent should seek professional help or consider limiting his or her time with the child. Parents can also support their children during this difficult time by talking to them clearly about the divorce and its implications and answering their questions fully.
Other, more general facets of good parenting can also buffer against divorce-related difficulties in children. Parents should provide warmth and emotional support, and they should closely monitor their children's activities. They should also deliver discipline that is neither overly permissive nor overly strict. Other factors contributing to children's adjustment include postdivorce economic stability and social support from peers and other adults, such as teachers.
In addition, certain characteristics of the child can influence his or her resilience. Children with an easygoing temperament tend to fare better. Coping styles also make a difference. For example, children who are good problem solvers and who seek social support are more resilient than those who rely on distraction and avoidance.
The good news is that although divorce is hard and often extremely painful for children, long-term harm is not inevitable. Most children bounce back and get through this difficult situation with few if any battle scars.