“Other than birth itself, divorce may be the most significant event in the life of a child who experiences it. It’s the knife that slashes not only his family but his world into pieces.”
– Susan Blyth Boyan & Ann Marie Termini (1999, p.2)
“I have yet to encounter a case of divorce in which the offspring do not experience intense sadness, considerable anxiety, and confusion.”
– Stanton E. Samenow (2002, p. 2)
So what’s so bad about divorce anyhow? Helping your child endure the divorce starts with having a good understanding of what causes the problems to begin with. Unless you’re familiar with the different pitfalls that exist, you won’t be able to spare your child from any of the pain and turmoil that so often accompanies parental divorce.
Divorce is a major life transition that will affect just about every aspect of your child’s life. In fact, it’s hard to find a single aspect of a child’s existence that is left untouched by divorce, and that’s precisely the problem. This chapter will explore the primary ways that children are injured, ending with a list of studies summing up the impact and consequences of divorce, so that you truly understand what’s at stake. We’ll begin with a broad overview of the different ways that divorce can affect a child’s life.
The emotional & psychological effects of divorce on children
Parents may assume that the divorce is just between them, but it often wreaks havoc on a child’s psychology and emotions just as much:
- Because children love their parents, they are very attuned to the emotional climate of the breakup, and this impacts their own emotions as well. They worry about what the divorce will mean for them, and they also worry about you and your welfare..
- Divorce often affects a child’s self-esteem and self-identity. Among children, particularly those in their preteen years, a primary contributor to self-identity is a child’s relationship to the family. When divorce causes this family to rupture, it can leave a child with damaged self-esteem and lingering questions about who they are and where they fit in.
- Divorce impacts a parent’s availability, and many children experience parental rejection when a mother or father essentially drops out of their lives, which can have severe psychological consequences.
The social effects of divorce on children
Divorce can impact the social development of children in many ways:
- Divorce not only involves conflict between parents, but this hostility can carry over to extended family, limiting the access a child has to other adults who may be (or might have been) important in their lives.
- Divorce often leads to the loss (more or less) of one parent figure, which has profound consequences on a child’s social and sexual development, particularly if no other similar parent figure takes their place.
- Divorce often affects a child’s ability to form healthy relationships as adults, because patterns and fears from childhood re-emerge and cause destructive styles of relating to others.
- Divorce can affect a child’s socialization and friendships, since it’s often difficult to develop the same type of close peer relationships when children spend so much time moving from one home to the next. Peer relationships have only half the time to form, and are being constantly disrupted.
The environmental effects of divorce on children
Divorce affects a child’s living arrangements and physical environment in more ways than one. Not only does their home become divided, but it leads to a number of other environmental changes:
- Parents typically become poorer after divorce, since they each have bigger expenses with (at best) the same amount of income to go around. This can impact what types of resources they have to devote towards their kids, and may mean downgrading to a poorer neighborhood with poorer schools, each of which comes with its own set of risks.
- It creates an environment of regular, ongoing transition as children split time between parents and have to shuttle from one home to the next.
- Divorce creates a vacuum in both households, and this vacuum is filled with instability. Parents dating…cohabiting with new partners . . . remarriage and step-family situations; the process of rebuilding one’s life often ensures that children continue to experience change and instability in their family environment throughout childhood.
The long-term effects of divorce on children
Divorce often affects a child’s entire life trajectory. As Carla Garrity and Mitchell Baris point out, “For children, divorce is not a one-time event but a continuous process. Over time, it shapes and reshapes their lives and perceptions of the world.” (Garrity & Baris, 1994, p.12) It sets into motion a cascade of other changes:
- It alters how children are raised by each parent and how often they see them, which in turn can degrade the parent-child relationship overall.
- Divorce can affect a child’s support for college, because as parents remarry and take on new responsibilities, children from the old marriage often receive less support.
- For better or worse, divorce permanently shapes a child’s perceptions about family and relationships. What’s the point in marriage? Should they bother to have kids? What’s the point in love? Long-term studies show that divorce dramatically alters a child’s perception of these things, and can impact such profound choices as whether to get married or even have kids.
- Especially in today’s society, support may be needed well into early adulthood, yet children of divorce are less likely to receive it. When things like unemployment or losing a job if you don’t have a working car are a real possibility, the support from parents that children of divorce often lose can mean the difference between rebound and homelessness.