There are so many factors involved in how a child is affected psychologically by divorce that the outcome for each child is as individual as the child itself. Some children can be scarred for life whilst others cope with the divorce badly at first and then come to terms with it whilst for others the outcome is totally positive.
1. The age of the child. The younger the child is when the divorce happens the more negative affect the divorce will have on them.
2. The gender of the child. It seems that boys find it more difficult to adjust socially than girls do after a divorce.
3. Pre-divorce problems. If a child has problems before the divorce they can become worse as they try to cope with the divorce as well.
4. The mental state of the resident parent. If the mother is depressed or anxious at the beginning of the divorce, this can lead to the children having difficulty getting used to the divorce emotionally and socially.
5. Frequency of contact with the non-resident parent. If the non-resident parent had a very positive relationship and spent a considerable amount of time with the child, loss of this relationship can be damaging.
6. Degree of conflict between the parents. How the parents deal with the divorce and the how they help the children to deal with the divorce are very important in making sure the children cope with the new situation. In so called “High Conflict” divorces with parents fighting over residence and contact, the outcome is very poor for children. “High Conflict” is a misleading term. It implies that both parents have the same amount of power, whereas in reality, it is more likely that one of the parents is protective and the other is using the courts to continue their abuse the protective parent and the children.
Positive Effects of Divorce on Children
Where a divorce frees the children from a domestic violence situation the outcomes can only be positive for the children. As long as the abusive parent does not continue to try and abuse and control the non-abusive parent and to hurt them using the children outcomes can be very good. Sadly, many abusive fathers continue to abuse the mother and the children through the family courts system which works on the basis that a child needs contact with both parents. With abusive fathers gaining residency and unsupervised contact with their children purely on the basis that they are the father, we are seeing children being used as weapons against their non-abusive mothers and even killed to hurt her even more.
It is obvious that children who have been in a domestic violence situation that divorce can be very successful in improving the quality of life for the children as well as the adults. Children are often very relieved when the violent parent is removed from their lives as they are not witnessing or being involved in the violence against their mothers. Older adolescents become mature, are able to develop the normal emotional detachment from the family that comes as we get older and they can become independent individuals. These children can also develop in a way that will help them be more committed in their own intimate relationships.
The family is the most important emotional support that children should be able to rely on. When parents divorce, children can feel extremely lonely and may feel abandoned by the parent who leaves them. The loss of a parent can make them feel emotionally insecure and they may feel that the parent they are with can abandon them too.
Feelings of Guilt
Children may feel that the divorce is their fault and their parent left because of something they did or that this parent has stopped loving them. Girls can feel that if their fathers leave it is because they are not pretty enough or clever enough.
The loss of a parent through divorce can have the same effect as the death of that parent. Children can suffer from loss of self-esteem and feel that they are bad or of no value. They can even become depressed if they can’t deal with the feelings they have of grief and loss. Children from broken homes are more likely to take their own lives than those in stable families. The remaining parent is often too weighed down by their own problems to help their children and the child may feel that this parent could desert them too. Older children can become rebellious and defiant and will be more likely to break the rules at home, school and in society and have problems at school or with the police.
Physical symptoms can appear because of the grief, anxiety and abandonment that the children feel. They can have problems sleeping and may loose their appetite. Some may become anorexic or bulimic whilst other children show symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Difficulties building relationships
Children of divorced parents could find it difficult to sustain other relationships with family or friends. They may have problems with other family members or their peers at school. They may find problems maintaining long-term intimate relationships as adults. Researchers also say that these children can suffer from teenage pregnancy, promiscuity and marital problems more than those from stable homes.
Problems at school
Divorce can affect children’s performance at school. Exhaustion and lack of concentration caused by the loss and anxiety can cause problems for younger children whilst older children are likely to miss school, have falling grades and behave badly at school. They are also more likely to drop out of school and lack self-discipline.
The worst effect on children of divorced couples is that they become economically disadvantaged. A single parent family, especially if headed by just the mother, is usually much worse off financially. Mainly because the mother has lost her career because she has taken on the burden of raising the children and so is at a disadvantage in the workplace. It could also because of financial abuse. The abuser has made sure that she has no money of her own, that she is unable to work or left the mother in so much debt that she cannot provide properly for her children. In the case of domestic violence, the mother may have fled the family home and moved into a refuge or to another area where she has no support. She may find it difficult to find childcare or work in the new area and feel isolated herself away from family and friends.
Recent research sees divorce more as a process than as a traumatic event. Thus some parenting resource centres feel that when the risk factors that come with divorce including loss of contact with a caring parent, fewer monetary resources and conflict between parents are reduced, the children may do better. It is crucial that divorced parents don’t add to the emotional burden of their children by relying on them for emotional support. Worse than that is to lie to them, manipulate or pressurize them into taking sides in the conflict between the parents.
It can be seen that most of these problems could be alleviated by the parents handling the separation much better. If both the parents work together in the best interests of the child and contact with a non-resident parent is constructive then children won’t feel that they have been abandoned. Both parents need to tell the children that they love them and reinforce that it is not the children’s fault. This is known as “co-parenting”. Obviously, if the parents can work together then the outcome for children is much better. However, in the so-called “high conflict” cases where one parent is working against the other, this is not going to happen. I have seen many a protective mother branded “implacably hostile” and punished for this when all she is trying to do is protect her children and herself from an abusive father.
Long Term Effects
Most children from divorced families do not have problems that are so bad that they need professional help. It has also been suggested that the negative effects of divorce on children have been so overstated that they have now become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and children are expected to suffer from divorce and people tell them they should be suffering, so they do.
When adults who were children when their parents divorced have been asked how they felt, they express the divorce as a painful occurrence but most of them have had successful careers and been able to maintain intimate relationships. In fact, some of the children, especially girls, have dealt with the divorce by growing much stronger because of the divorce than children from intact families.
So the factors that most determine the psychological health of children really depends on making sure they are financially stable, that they do not lose contact with a supportive parent, making sure they are safe from an abusive parent and that their parents are helped with any problems they have.
Children may go off the rails for a while after their parents divorce but their are ways to help them face the challenges that life has thrown up and there is every likelihood that they will come out the other side and become productive members of society and may even become better people because of what they have been through. Once children accept their parent’s divorce they can find that because their parents are both happier they can form stronger bonds with both of them and there are many benefits to having two families. Many parents remarry and it is remarkable how well some children can bond with their step-parents. They just have to think of their families as “differently” normal.