The impact of divorce on children
Divorce is a very unhappy and stressful event for the whole family. It leads to broken hearts filled with anger, anxiety and uncertainty. Not only parents but children also suffer from the separation. It has a huge impact on the well-being of their children.
Every family has its own way to deal with the situation. Some families do not suffer much from the aftermath of divorce, while others might have to struggle hard to get through. Although life during a divorce can be very tough for the parents and the children, it is essential to know how to deal with the situation in order to reduce its effects.
The period before divorce
This is a very stressful time. The parents have to deal with their own problems, which can affect the parent-child relationship. Children often get neglected and overlooked. As there are raising conflicts between the parents, children (silently) observe and feel the tension. Cummings and Davies (1994) think that the stress that children experience during this stage affects their other relationships (with friends or relatives). It may seem that children become closer with their friends, but actually they distance themselves and do not want to engage with other people. Also, if they see that their parents are constantly arguing in front of them, it can lead to various psychological problems, mainly anxiety and depression.
The period of separation
In this stage, everyone is seriously disrupted. Parents are usually extremely emotional and have to face the practical problems too. The crisis period, which is usually 1 year, brings a lot of changes. If the mother gets the custody of the children, she often has to go through the financial problems as suddenly she is the one only one who has to take care of everything. This means that the there will be a change in the lifestyle, no more vacations or no fancy gifts. All these sudden changes can be too much for the children to handle. Also, they might have to change the neighborhood or the school which means that the children will have to leave the environment they are familiar with. This can cause extra stress and burden on the child.
Another important aspect is the change in the pattern of parenting. The custodial parent becomes more authoritarian and demands for obedience. This way of parenting makes the children moody, easily annoyed and unhappy. However, there are studies that suggest that if the custodial parent is getting support from relatives or close friends, the parent shows reduced change in the pattern of parenting, so the support systems is very crucial. However, non-custodial parent becomes much more permissive and sets no rules. The reason for this is that non-custodial parent has only a limiting amount of time to see the child and wants it to be a happy experience for the child. There are no rules and the child is in-charge. This can create problems for the custodial parent, as the child will be more inclined towards the one who does not want to regulate and sets boundaries.
The impacts of this stage on the children depend on the age, the temperament and the gender of the child. Children between 4 – 6 years are worst affected as they blame themselves for the separation. They think that the reason why their parents are not together anymore is because they did something wrong. Those below this age group are usually too young to understand the changes and the ones above this age group are old enough to (at some extent) understand what is going on. Also, children with difficult temperament are hit harder by the divorce. Moreover, boys are more affected by it than girls, because girls usually have at least one person to talk to, whereas boys generally tend to hang out in groups and do not have someone to share the emotional thoughts with. Also, boys usually hide their emotions and simply do not want to talk about it.
Not all children have to suffer from the long-term effects of divorce. However, there is a higher risk of mental health problems arising in children with divorced families (Cherlin, 1998). Although, most children do not suffer of any such problems, 20% of them do show some signs, which is higher than children of non-divorced parents (5%). These children become more pessimistic and doubtful about their future relationships. A study by Lee (1994) found out that if the father takes the children into a new marriage with a step-mother, it affects the mental health of children more than when the mother takes the children into a new marriage.
What can be done to reduce the harmful impact of divorce on children?
There is no doubt about the pain and the agony a divorce can cause to the children. However, there are ways to reduce the stress.
- Establishing support networks. As mentioned above, it is very important to have people who can support and help you through this unpleasant event. Friends, family or even support groups make a huge difference for the children as well as the parents.
- Minimize the number of (sudden) changes. While there are many changes going on, children do need some kind of stability and constancy in their lives. It is better if they can live in the same house/neighborhood or go to the same school, so that they do not have to go through the stress of dealing with an unfamiliar environment.
- It is (generally) in the interest of the child, if the custodial parent promotes the contact with the non-custodial parent as the child does not have to deal with the stress of choosing between both parents.
- Parents should also keep in mind that their children are not messengers. If one parent has some issues with the other parent, they should leave the children out of it instead of using them as ‘go-betweens’.