Divorce and Children

Divorce is an unfortunate and painful event in any situation, but divorce that involves children involves additional stress and concern. Most parents contemplating divorce wonder about the emotional impact and long term effects the separation will have on their children. Many couples try to stay together to prevent their children from experiencing the trauma associated with divorce.

Psychologists are just now beginning to understand the impact divorce has on children. In depth studies that include following the lives of children of divorce are providing insight, and unfortunately, results that confirm many of our worst fears. A 1991 study by Amato and Keith followed 13,000 children ranging in age from toddler to adolescent in an effort to determine long term results of divorce. The study included children from “intact” families as well. The findings revealed that children of divorce experienced more academic difficulty, had lower self esteem, and more behavior problems in general.

This does not mean that all children were worse off. Depending on the events surrounding the divorce and how the events were handled played a vital role. Some of the important variables include:

Child’s Age at Time of Separation

  • Infants: Although they may not have an understanding of conflict, infants can sense changes in a parent’s emotional state and will react accordingly. Infants may experience symptoms of distress, have difficulty sleeping, or stomach problems.
  • Toddlers / Preschool Children: Children from 3-5 years old may experience a period of regression from recent milestones. Bed-wetting, nightmares, and a great deal of yearning for the way things once were are very common.
  • Children 5-8 years: This age of child may have open crying spells and fantasize that their parents will soon be reunited. This age has difficulty understanding the concept of permanency.
  • Children 8-11 years: Feelings of helplessness, anger, outbursts of emotion, and extreme grief are expected of this age. This age tends to take sides and may try to become a care giver to the parent they are around the most.
  • Teenage children to age 18: The hardest hit age, teens often react with severe depression, fear, anger, and even suicidal thoughts. Some feel pushed into adult behavior as they may have to take on care for younger siblings, and they may bring their anger with them into dating relationships.

Although the above are noted effects of divorce, each child is different. A child’s adjustment to a separation has more to do with the way the parent’s handle their parent-child relationship during and after the divorce than any other factor. When a child receives the approval, attention, and love from both parents that they need, the intensity of the trauma is greatly decreased.

Unfortunately, most of the time, parents become consumed with their own trauma, depression, and emotional pain, which makes them less available for the needs of their children. This is called diminished parenting, and although it is expected to be a short term problem, there is always the danger that the parent and child relationship will never return to a state of normalcy. This is especially true when a parent immediately enters into a new love relationship. This can be extremely overwhelming for the child who usually doesn’t know how to deal with their feelings of loss and confusion.

Children of divorce often experience extreme changes in living conditions. Many children end up living with one parent without much contact from the non-custodial parent. When this occurs, quality of life often changes and the new, broken family may even live in complete poverty.

When these situations occur, the chances for the children to continue the cycle of poverty increase. Studies have shown that income disparity is undeniably linked to the stability of the family. Some startling statistics include:

  • Children who live in a single family home are almost ten times more likely to live in poverty than children from two parent homes.
  • Children living with blended step families or single parent homes are three times more likely to drop out of school.
  • According to a 2001 study, only five percent of children claim that parents explained why the divorce was taking place and allowed their children to ask questions.
  • A 2003 Kelly and Emery study concluded that non-custodial fathers visit their children only four times per month directly after the divorce and about twenty percent of children have absolutely no contact with their fathers within 2 years after the divorce is finalized.

More Risk Factors

Many parents do not fully take into account all the risks and devastation their children experience during a divorce. Additional considerations are ‘life stress.’ The factors involved here include changing residence, changing schools or child care providers, and making new friends. All of these contribute to feelings of isolation.

Lack of parent competence directly following the divorce can have life-long effects on the child. A parent should make every effort to keep everything stable and predictable that they possibly can. This involves simple things such as dinner times, homework help, proper bedtime, and a direct effort to nurture the children involved in the divorce. Children should not be exposed to parental conflict in any form and should not have to experience the stress of feeling that they need to choose to agree with one parent over another. Especially when parents begin to live life again as singles, children may start to feel neglected.

As divorce is becoming more prevalent and common in today’s society, it is important to realize the need for qualified mental health professionals that specialize in counseling children. Children need a strong support system during a divorce and it is the parent’s responsibility to properly provide for the emotional needs of their children.

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