While no couple enters into marriage expecting it to end in divorce, 20 percent of first marriages end in divorce within five years, and 48 percent of first marriages end in divorce within twenty years. Despite its commonality, divorce is an emotionally charged process for the entire family. Unlike adults, children lack the mental capacity to navigate the complexity of the situation and reach out for help when needed, leaving them more vulnerable to adopting negative behaviors.
There is no catchall solution for minimizing these negative effects. The feasibility of the solution depends heavily on the nature of the divorce and individual characteristics of the parents and child. “Links between divorce and children’s adjustment are moderated by several factors, including children’s age at the time of their parents’ divorce…the length of time since the divorce, children’s demographic characteristics (gender, race/ethnicity), children’s adjustment prior to the divorce, and stigmatization of divorce (by location or historical period).” Divorce may have a more negative effect on older children, compounding the insecurities of adolescent children with the loss of familial structure and support. Similarly, the gender of the child and the custodial parent, the family’s socioeconomic status before and after the divorce, and the child’s personality prior to the divorce, may influence the severity of negative behaviors after divorce. Despite these limitations, parents and professionals need to understand how to best support a child and how to interact amongst one another to ensure that the child feels as little added stress as possible.
What Children Experience When Their Parents Divorce
Children of divorced households may experience economic changes, as well as a decrease in the time they spend with one or both parents. These two changes, research finds, result in the most substantial negative effects on children of divorce.
After a divorce, a child may experience financial instability. Not only does a change in financial stability affect a parent’s ability to provide basic necessities for the child, but it also influences the child’s psychological wellbeing and development. Children in lower socioeconomic status (“SES”) homes have fewer educational opportunities and are more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety. This compounds the already-difficult situation for a child of divorce.
Lifestyle changes precipitated by a change in SES may compound a child’s feeling of guilt or anxiety. Similarly, a child’s inability to enjoy a similar standard of living may confuse and stress the child. Activities that were once affordable become cost-prohibitive. The family may be less able to go out for meals or entertainment. The child may have to change camps, shop at different stores, and otherwise involuntarily participate in the family’s cost-saving measures. A child, previously unaware of a family’s finances, becomes intimately familiar with them.
Decrease In Time With Each Parent
Children depend on the support and nurturing of their parents; when parents divorce, this attachment is disrupted. The parents physically separate and setup separate households. The child is rarely able to spend time with both parents simultaneously. Time spent with one parent will now come at the expense of time spent with the other. This disruption in the traditional household structure will result in increased stress for the child. Often, the disruption of parental relationships leads to the child fearing abandonment, especially when one parent is absent or only has occasional visitation with the child
Adjustment and Behavioral Issues
The stresses of economic instability and a decrease in time with each parent manifest themselves “in negative outcomes in terms of behavior, emotion, self-esteem, social relations, academic achievement, and psychosomatic disorders.” Children experiencing divorce often display a variety of negative or destructive behaviors including guilt, anger, high distractibility, lower grades, and high conflict social relationships.
The effects of divorce extend beyond a child’s home. In a study comparing the effects of divorce on academic achievement, children of divorce performed significantly worse than their counterparts in two-parent families. The study also found lower markers of psychological adjustment and self-esteem in children of divorce. Interestingly, when children of divorce were compared to children who experienced the death of a parent, the children of divorce continued to underperform.
Following divorce, a child’s life may be changed in regards to both home and school life. At home, children are no longer living and interacting with both parents day to day. More significantly, some children may be faced with moving to a new home and a new school. Children may be distracted in class and less interested in social interactions because of increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Research on the effects of divorce on children focuses on more ‘typical’ divorces—meaning, divorces that are not particularly catastrophic, and where the child retains contact between both parents. There are, however, situations where this is either not possible, or not safe, for the child or parents. The majority of research ignores the group of children of divorce who have an abusive or neglectful parent. In this case, having the negative parents away from the child may be important to allow the child to heal from any hurt, as well as thrive in a more positive environment, despite only being with one parent. Additionally, because conducting longitudinal studies on the effects of divorce on children is difficult, many studies include a small number of participants, which limits their generalizability and accuracy.
What Should Divorcing Parents Do?
Research suggests that conflict between parents is a major influence on negative outcomes for children. Children living in high-conflict homes score significantly lower in conduct, psychological adjustment, and self-concept, than do their peers living in low-conflict homes. If the conflict between parents continues after the divorce, a child is more likely to display negative behaviors and poor adjustment to the situation than if, after divorce, parents are cooperative and maintain a positive relationship between one another. In some instances, it is impossible to entirely eliminate parental conflict. However, research has shown that having one parent talk positively of the other parent balances out the negativity the child hears from the other parent, thereby reducing the overall sense of conflict.
Additionally, the child should have as much visitation with the non-custodial parent as possible. When a child suddenly loses the relationship with one parent, feelings of depression, inadequacy, blame, and abandonment may become prominent, despite the other parent still remaining in the child’s life. A consistent parenting time schedule helps ameliorate this issue. In situations where maintaining contact with one parent is not safe for the child, this should be explained to the child in an age appropriate way.
Because divorce is a confusing concept for many children, it is important to be clear in explaining what is happening and for a parent to be willing to give nonjudgmental answers to the child. The age of the child influences how to appropriately explain the situation, because “…in comparison with older children, younger children may be less capable of realistically assessing the causes and consequences of divorce…” Since younger children are less able to fully understand the components of divorce, they need simplistic explanations and reassurance that these substantial changes will not negatively influence their relationship with the parents, nor are they a major cause for concern.
While parents should be sure to provide extra support, love, and care for the child during and after the divorce, they should also remain firm with parenting practices. Following divorce, parenting practices may be disrupted or changed, depending on the individual parent’s parenting style and whether this is reflective on the parenting style enforced before the divorce. Studies show that structured and consistent parenting following a divorce is important to maintain a stable environment for the child and help the child quickly adjust to the divorce. Additionally, parents should be aware that children take time to adjust to new situations—whether that is a new home, a new school, a new sibling, or a divorce. A child may display negative behaviors initially after a divorce, but this does not mean that such behaviors are permanent. Overtime, children adjust and become comfortable in new situations, meaning that these negative behaviors can often be short-term.
Whenever possible, parents should take advantage of outside help to ensure that they can provide children with these previously discussed solutions. For example, there are “…alternative legal interventions including divorce education classes…mediation, parenting coordination, and collaborative practice” that are aimed at reducing the high-conflict levels between parents during divorce. Divorce educational programs focus on teaching parents the effects of divorce on children and how to focus on the needs of children during divorce. Often, they teach parents how to maintain a close relationship with the child and positive parenting behaviors and discipline. These classes can help parents with the anxiety and uncertainty of the divorce process and help them feel better equip to handle the divorce and provide for the children.
While children do need plenty of support during divorce, parents should not neglect their own needs. If a parent is experiencing negative effects following divorce, they cannot properly care for a child, which may in turn increase the negative effects on the child. If this is the case, it is essential that the parent obtain outside support to help treat depression, anxiety, stress, or other negative feelings.
Divorce is a trying time for the entire family. However, despite the difficulties and upsets that may arise, both parents and children can thrive following a divorce, with proper precautions and supports in place. Parents need to take care of their own emotional wellbeing, seeking outside treatment and support if necessary. For their children, parents should remain caring and warm, responsive to the child’s needs, while also enforcing consistent and fair rules. Children should be given the opportunity to ask questions and receive nonjudgmental answers; any current and future changes need to be clearly explained to the child, and if possible, the child should be allowed to give input on any of these changes. Additionally, parents should remain in low conflict with one another, never talking negatively about one another to the child or forcing the child to pick sides. The child should have a consistent visitation schedule, when appropriate. By taking these steps, parents can ensure that their child thrives following a divorce and is not trapped in a world of anxiety, stress, and subsequently, negative behaviors.
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This post was written by Maeghan Murphy, former law clerk and Columbia Law ’19, and Joshua E. Stern.
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