The divorce rate has sunk below the oft-quoted figure of 50%, but divorce continues to affect a significant percentage of Americans. Approximately 850,000 divorces occur each year in the US. Estimates vary as to the number of children who witness their parents’ divorce, but many figures place it between 40% and 50% – quite a large number.
When considering divorce, parents generally give serious thought to how it will impact their children. Some may try to stay in failing marriages for the sake of their progeny, though this is not necessarily a good idea – studies and anecdotal evidence both suggest that long-term exposure to parental conflict without divorce can cause some of the same effects in children as divorce would, or worsen the effects once divorce does occur.
If you are contemplating ending your marriage, you already know that it will impact your children. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right choice, and you shouldn’t let it stop you from pursuing what you feel is the best path for your own emotional health and long-term well-being. Instead, you should take care to educate yourself on how, exactly, your divorce may impact your children, and what you can do to alleviate negative effects. This article is intended as a resource to help you understand the impact of divorce on your child and what you can do to help.
The Psychological Impact of Divorce on Children
Generally speaking, the psychological impact of divorce varies according to the age of the child. It is most pronounced in young children in the preschool – early elementary range. Children of this age have not developed all of the complex cognitive skills which an older child or adolescent could draw upon to make sense of an event like divorce. They are likely to find the changes confusing, and since the family unit is a major pillar of their world, their trust in it and in their parents may be severely shaken – in some cases, to the point of undermining the child’s long-term relationships with both parents. Further, because children of this age are generally more egocentric – that is, their perceptions are more rooted in their sense of their own place in the world – they are more likely to feel responsible for their parents’ divorce. This may result in deep feelings of guilt and/or a strong desire to affect a reconciliation between the parents, accompanied by frustration when no such reconciliation occurs. For children in this age range, therefore, it is particularly important that parents explain that the divorce is not the child’s fault, but is simply a result of the parents’ changing relationship.
For children in the 6-12 age range, comprehension is greater. Those aged 6-8 often have reactions characterized by extreme grief at the loss of proximity to one parent, and while they are less likely to blame themselves, they still experience the sense of denial and desire to reunite the parents characteristic of younger children. Those aged 9-12 comprehend much of the situation, and particularly, they generally understand that the divorce is not their fault but rather the doing of their parents. This often results in anger manifested at one or both parents; if the child perceives one parent to be disproportionately at fault, he or she may side with the other parent. For the long-term well-being of everyone involved, however, it is important that the child maintain as strong a relationship as possible with both parents. So if your child seems to be picking sides, nip it in the bud, however much you may agree with his or her assessment of the situation.
For children aged 12 and under, generally, reactions to divorce often include a reversion to greater dependence on the parents – from loss of recently gained skills in younger children to a simple increase in clingyness in older children. These behaviors may be conscious or unconscious, and often result from a desire for parental attention and/or a deeply shaken sense of the parents’ reliability.
With teenagers, however, the opposite is true – parental divorce leads them to greater independence. Teens are already moving toward independence, and a major event like a parental divorce can catapult them into it headfirst as the family structure they grew up with gives way to a new one in which they must negotiate a place for themselves. Teens are also more likely to react with anger and perceive the divorce as a choice which has been made without regard for their happiness and best interests, and they may rebel against and disregard parental rules to the extent that they feel their own happiness is being disregarded. This is a situation that must be handled with delicacy and tact, as teens must be reined in while also being persuaded that the choice is right for the entire family and is ultimately in their best interests as well. This resource or this one may help you figure out how to navigate this discussion with your teen; you might also try asking them to read this article or a similar one which deals with the topic of divorce in a way specifically tailored to teens.
Impact of Divorce on Academics and Daily Life
Since this is, after all, an education-focused magazine, we should also address the impact of parental divorce on a child’s academics and school life. Several studies, dealing with preschoolers as well as elementary school and high school students, have found that parental divorce correlates with academic difficulties and, often, with increased social trouble at school.
Often, however, the cause of these difficulties is more practical than psychological. Communication between parents, children, and teachers is key for maintaining good academic performance, especially when a student is struggling and needs support. Lack of such communication can cause problems even for students living with both parents; when a student is living primarily with one parent or splitting time between both parents, there is a greater likelihood that a break in communication will cause a few assignments to slip through the cracks. A teacher who is unaware of the home situation may communicate with one parent but not the other, with the result that the other parent remains in the dark, for instance. Or if a child is actively seeking to avoid doing schoolwork, they may even exploit a lack of communication between parents, claiming to have finished an assignment or studied for a test while staying with the other parent. And even if a child is not intentionally avoiding work, the lack of a unified parental front enforcing homework rules can have a negative impact.
Fortunately, there is a practical solution for these practical problems. This article from greatschools.org contains a wealth of tips for dealing with these issues, the most important of which is simply to maintain the lines of communication between both parents, the child, and the teacher. If parents can speak directly to one another about a child’s academic performance and homework load, and if they can institute the same homework rules in their separate households, it will be much easier to ensure that the child’s studies do not fall through the cracks.
Of course, some school-related issues – like increased acting out in class – do have psychological causes, and thus are not so easily preventable. If your child has been having more disciplinary trouble in school (or at home, for that matter), it may be a good idea to consult a psychologist or therapist. This site is a good place to start looking for mental health professionals who can help your child learn to cope without resorting to aggressive or unruly behavior.
Managing the Effects of Divorce on Your Child’s Well-Being
Divorce does not necessarily have negative long-term effects on children. In fact, most children of divorce have worked through the emotional and psychological repercussions within 2-3 years, and one study found that in the long run, the instance of serious emotional or psychological issues was just 15% higher in children of divorce than in the overall population.
There are many things parents can do to alleviate the negative effects of divorce on their children and help to speed their healing and prevent long-term damage. This article lists a number of possible strategies parents might use; more can be found here, here, and here. Also of interest is this article, which addresses a teen’s needs during the process of divorce and hints at how parents can meet those needs.
Among the strategies laid out in the above-linked articles, there are several that are mentioned in multiple articles – or, indeed, in all of them. These most important strategies are worth discussing here. The most basic and fundamental – and, I would say, the most crucial – is to make sure that your children know that both you and your ex-spouse still love them, and will always love them, and will always be there for them. If your children know and believe this, the recovery process will be much easier.
Other key points raised in several of the above-linked articles include:
- Don’t speak ill of your ex-spouse in front of your children, or even refer to them as your ex-spouse – say instead “your mother” or “your father.” Saying negative things about the other parent may lead your child to take sides, either with or against you. Not only does this potentially hurt your relationship with your child, but it will be bad for your child in the long run, since a strong relationship with both parents is needed for optimal healing.
- Try to keep your children’s daily routines roughly the same as they had been, to the greatest extent possible. This will help your children have more of a sense of stability and security, and it will also make it easier for them to keep track of their homework and other obligations.
- Talk to your children about what’s happening, and be real about it – explain gently, but don’t sugarcoat or create false hope, and don’t hold things back. Make sure your children know that it’s not their fault, and make sure you don’t blame the other parent, either. If your children feel that you’re being level with them, it can help to strengthen your relationship, and it makes them less likely to feel betrayed and isolated.
- Whatever you do, don’t go to your children as sources of support while working through your own emotional pain. Divorce is difficult for everyone, and especially so for the people whose relationship is actually ending, but it’s important to remember that it’s also hard for your children. They are not equipped to help you with your emotional distress, and if you ask them to try, you may seem to be asking them to take your side.
Divorce is a deeply painful process, but in some cases, it’s the right call. If you decide that divorce is the right option for you, it will have a considerable impact on your entire family; but if you take care to attend to your children’s well-being in the ways outlined above, they should come through it alright. As long as they know that their parents love them no matter what, everything will eventually be okay.
This article is the third entry in our ongoing Resources for Parents series. If there’s a topic you’d like to see covered in a future Resources for Parents article, please let us know in the comments.
Resources for Further Reading
- What are the Possible Consequences of Divorce for Children?
- Good Parenting Through Your Divorce: The Essential Guidebook to Helping Your Children Adjust and Thrive – Based on the Leading National Program (full-length book)
- Divorce: The Ultimate Teen Guide (full-length book)
- Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce (full-length book)
- Children and Divorce: Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce (full-length book)