Divorce, a legal separation of a married couple that has profound effects on the people involved. There are both long-term and short-term effects that arise after a divorce occurs. When a married couple with children separates, not only are the two adults are affected by it, but more importantly, the children are affected largely as well. Divorce tends to have a strong emotional and psychological impact on the minds of children transforming their mentality of relationships for years to come, quite possibly forever. This impact that occurs causes the children to handle their future relationships differently, even if they don’t realize they are doing it. Some of the effects are visible immediately after the divorce while others may take several years to show themselves. Children who have grown up in split families show signs of negative, long-lasting effects in their own relationships, inside and outside the family, that are directly parallel to the influence their parents’ divorce on their lives.
Divorce in a family affects everyone in the unit to some degree, no matter how big or small. It all begins with the immediate effects. Some of these short-term impacts are anger, depression, aggression, interpersonal conflict, economic hardship, life stress, lower academic achievement, and social adjustment difficulty. These are only a few of the countless effects that can occur in a situation like this. The range of the short-term results varies from family to family depending on the relationship the children have with both parents before and after the divorce. In many cases of divorce, the parents and children become disconnected emotionally.
A few of the factors that play in to how strongly the children will be effected are ‘parental ability to resolve post-divorce conflict and anger, ability of the custodial parent to successfully resume the parenting role, ability of the non-custodial parent to maintain a mutually satisfying relationship with the child or children, [and] personality characteristics of the child and the ability to develop coping skills [‘]’ (Matthews 3). The parents are adjusting to their new, single lives and having to deal with several issues such as getting money, a place to live, or a job. The parents let up the reins they used to hold on their children and become more aware of their own problems rather than focusing on the connection they hold with their children and what their children are doing. If this happens, and the parents do not handle the situation well or cope positively with the situation, there is a higher probability that the short-term effects that impacted the children will turn into damaging long-term effects.
There are countless outcomes of a divorce that can leave the children involved with serious and long-lasting difficulties in the upcoming years of their lives. Even if the divorce happened at an early age when the child did not completely understand what was happening, the trauma of growing up in a separated family takes its toll on the child’s mind whether he or she realizes it or not. A study was done on children of multiple different families where each child’s personal thought process was traced over a ten year period. When the first follow-up was taken after five years, the short-term effects that had remained were anger, specifically at the parent who asked for the divorce, a longing for the absent parent, a wish for the family to be put back together, and moderate to severe cases of depression (4).
As adults, ten years after the divorce, the study followed up once again. The research showed that the children were not so much pushing for their parents to get back together as they simply expressed sorrow that their parents had not gotten back together. Any hope they once had that their parents may constitute their relationship once again had disappeared, and the children accepted their parents’ decision. Several of the students agreed that their lives would have been much happier if their parents had stayed together, and they were able to grow up in a strong family unit. The outcome was devastating, but they could do nothing about it, and had to respect it. This shows the maturity the children developed as they entered into adulthood, giving them a different outlook on the situation that would allow them to cope easier with what happened to them ten years ago and with all that has happened since then because of their parents’ decisions. Although this acceptance is extremely healthy for the healing process, children whose parents are divorced will never fully be healed. There are countless emotional, psychological, physical, and social concerns that have yet to be addressed.
One of the emotional concerns introduced to children when dealing with a divorce is that they are more prone to being quick to anger and frustration, as well as pressure and stress. Anger can build up inside the child over the years and cause the child to lash out in small, and sometimes large, bursts of anger at parents or siblings over different thoughts. This anger that has risen up because of the parent’s divorce, also comes from the daily problems children deal with. These can have to do with anything from school to sports to family. It is especially evident in times of stress. Children not only have to deal with new issues that have come from the divorce such as separation from one parent for certain periods of time, and packing and transportation back and forth from each parent, but also the pressures of schoolwork, grades, work, sports, church, and other weekly activities. For a child trying to balance their life with such a big change, it becomes tiresome, difficult, and easy to let that frustration build up inside.
Children can become so emotional that it starts to show through their actions and life choices they make as they get older. Adolescents whose parents are divorced tend to lash out more than kids who grow up in families that are intact (Fagan 1). The worse the relationship between the children and the parents after the divorce, the more the child will lash out simply searching for attention from their mother and/or father. They look for a way to let out the anger they hold against their parents for their decision, and look for attention and happiness anywhere they can find it.
Several children lean towards drugs, sex, aggressive or violent behavior, committing crimes, running away, alcohol, and even skipping school (Rappaport 1). This leads into the physical problems that can be found in children with split families. Some do not take care of themselves like they should, and sometimes not all their needs can be met because of the parent’s concerns being placed elsewhere in their lives. These can be relatively small issues like laziness, but could also reach into more serious situations such as not eating or self-harm.
These more serious problems could be a result of depression, which is extremely common during childhood, and even more so in children who are dealing with family separation. ‘[I]ts symptoms include irritability, worthlessness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating in school, poor appetite (or overeating), insomnia (or too much sleep) and/or constant fatigue’ (1). The most horrifying result of depression is death. Although parent’s divorcing may not be the only cause for depression for all children separated families, it can definitely play a large role in it, especially if other traumatic experiences are happening in the child’s life at a similar time such as death of a close friend or family member. It is often said that people harm themselves when they are in a state of depression because they are crying out for help; however, this myth does not take into account that the people who are doing these things to themselves are trying to end their emotional pain in whatever way they can. For some, it may be an eating disorder while others may cut themselves, or even attempt suicide. Feelings and emotions that build up from family troubles should be taken seriously and let out in a healthy way whether that means getting a counselor for the children or keeping them busy until they find something that they are passionate about and want to continue pursuing.
There are numerous other profound problems that can arise out of separated families such as:
[T]he children of divorced parents are more likely to get pregnant and give birth outside of marriage [‘], and twice as likely to cohabit than are children of married parents. Moreover, divorce appears to result in a reduction of the educational accomplishments of the affected children, weakens their psychological and physical health, and predisposes them to rapid initiation of sexual relationships and higher levels of marital instability. It also raises the probability that they will never marry [‘]. (Fagan 1).
The first point raised here is that these children are more likely to get pregnant outside of marriage. Not only that, but they are more likely to get pregnant as a teenager, or while in a cohabitated relationship. Percentage of teen births from 1960 to 1994 rose from 15% to 76%, not taking any abortions into account. In relation to these teen births there was also a spike in divorced couples in those years, especially when the divorce rate dramatically spiked 79% between the years 1970 and 1977 (Matthews 1). This shows a connection between the rise in divorces and the rise in teen births indicating the two intertwine on some level.
People nowadays are less likely to get married first, and then have children. Much of the time, it is the other way around, and when a couple out of wedlock has a child, they usually do not have any intention of getting married. ‘It is not that the number of babies born to teens has changed; it is that marriage within this group has vanished’ (Fagan 1). People seem to have lost the meaning of marriage and children. There were several marriages at a young age in the mid-nineties and teens who were having children were a married couple. The number of births stayed still, but the number of weddings and marriages decreased. This can be traced back to the number of divorces that were occurring during that time. The mindset of children whose parents’ were divorced is that they don’t want to end up in the same situation. They are afraid to enter into a relationship that could lead to a marriage and subconsciously allow their mind and heart to stay detached from the idea of ever marrying a person. As adults, they still want their sexual needs to be met, and when in a relationship will act upon that, which could possibly lead to pregnancy. As a teenager whose parents are divorced, as stated before, they are searching for attention from their parents, and looking for a way to let out their emotions. Also, if lashing out with drugs and/or alcohol, and making bad decisions, sex and pregnancy is more likely to occur. If not careful, this could lead to teen pregnancy, and the girl would have to deal with that whole situation and figure out how she was going to handle it, especially in the areas of the father and school.
Teen pregnancies and pregnancies out-of-wedlock are not the only results from fear of commitment. Cohabitation and development of purely sexual relationships are two things that are extremely likely to arise from someone who is afraid of commitment, which is almost always an effect of a child’s parents being divorced when they were young. ‘Today, the economic and social future of children in the poor and the middle class is being undermined by a culture that promotes teenage sex, divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock birth’ (Fagan 1). The way the government treats these situations, giving help rather than solving the issue at hand, makes it much easier for people to believe that teenage sex, pregnancy out-of-wedlock, divorce, and cohabitation are okay for anybody of any age.
Many people cohabit who have no future plan of getting married. This does not apply to those who do not believe in marriage, and plan on spending the rest of their lives together as a couple. Children whose parents have divorced grow up to have relationships in which no marriage or future in general is seen in the eyes of that particular child, now an adult, yet they still decide to live with that person, or stay over at their house often. They may go from person to person cohabiting until they at last find that one person who they think they could develop a serious relationship with and possibly marry.
Cohabiting does not only happen with children whose parents are divorced. Cohabitation is actually a relatively common part of living for many people; however, for some people, cohabiting occurs when a serious couple may be thinking of getting married and want to know what it is like to live with the other person, or when a couple has a child out-of-wedlock and both parents have decided they need to be there for the baby at all hours of the day. The action of two people living together before marriage who may be thinking of having a future together can actually cause more marital problems to occur and increase the likelihood of divorce (1). In the year 1990, 29% of people whose parents were together were cohabiting together, but 54%-62% of children cohabited whose parents were divorced. This doubled the rate of divorce for that 54-62%. For those whose parents were divorced that were cohabiting with someone who wasn’t going to be their future spouse, the rates of divorce in their own future marriage was doubled once again (1). Forty percent of these couples have children in the home with them, and eighty percent of these children will spend at least a portion of their life in a single-parent home.
Divorce is an unfortunate event for any family, particularly those with children. Studies have shown that approximately 25% of children whose parents divorce suffer psychologically, socially, and academically at some point in their lives. For the most part, research on divorce focuses solely on divorce in the immediate aftermath, usually a two to five-year window, so nothing is set in stone. Nonetheless, it is crucial for parents who have decided on divorce to keep in mind that their separation is not only about them. Their children are in just as deep.
One major concern is that the children of divorce will come to the conclusion that their parents no longer love them. If one parent moves out, some children will assume responsibility for the separation and respond accordingly. Other children will feel abandoned and betrayed in some fashion, as though their parents have divorced them as well. Without any reassurance, these children may develop fears of abandonment. On occasion, the children involved are too young to understand the goings-on, but regardless of age, they need their parents to support them and their feelings to show them that they are not completely powerless.
Conflicts of loyalty can also come into play. Particularly if the divorce is messy and full of conflict, a child may feel obligated to choose a side. This can be extremely traumatic for children; they love both parents dearly and do not want to choose between them. Divorces are difficult for everyone involved, but divorces full of anger, resentment, and acts of spousal revenge can cause more harm to the child than anything. Children can find themselves caught in the middle of their parents’ battles, and they may wonder what part they play in the bigger picture.
Children need support systems. They thrive on structure and the stability offered by the individuals who raise them, giving them the security of certainty and predictability. When a young girl wakes up in the morning, she will have comfort knowing that when she goes downstairs for breakfast, she will see her mother and her father waiting for her. This routine gives the girl comfort and security because she knows that they will always be there when she wakes up, but that stability is taken away when parents divorce.
During divorce, everything changes. When the girl goes down for breakfast, she may only see one parent. This will likely confuse her, rocking the foundation of her comfort zone. During divorce, children are at their most vulnerable and may turn to comfort items. They need the stability offered by family life and when that stability is gone, they turn to other things that they believe will never leave them. Possible comfort items include stuffed toys, blankets, or even items of their parents’ clothing.
The age of the child has an impact on how the child will react to divorce. Toddlers may suffer from fears of separation and may have trouble sleeping. Younger children who are just old enough to understand some of the goings-on will grieve for the loss of their parents’ marriage. Preteens may react by taking sides and combating their powerlessness with anger. Adolescents may respond the most strongly, often by lashing out, criticizing both parents for their decisions, and agonizing over the fate of their future relationships.
Parents should prepare themselves for how their children may react to divorce. Every child reacts differently depending on his or her age group and gender, so no case is predictable. However, it is important to remember that research on children of divorce is very limited. Most studies only follow children of divorce in the immediate aftermath, usually a two to five-year time window. Many children who suffer in the aftermath of divorce recover and avoid the long-lasting psychological effects. Nonetheless, parents should take steps to reassure their children. Reassurance and nurturing can go a long way toward helping children of divorce to recover.
Filed Under: Social Issues