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Manual > 8 - Psychology of Divorce > Effects on Children

Effects on Children

In the last few years, higher-quality research which has allowed the "meta-analysis" of previously published research, has shown the negative effects of divorce on children have been greatly exaggerated. In the past we read that children of divorce suffered from depression, failed in school, and got in trouble with the law. Children with depression and conduct disorders showed indications of those problems predivorce because there was parental conflict predivorce. Researchers now view conflict, rather than the divorce or residential schedule, as the single most critical determining factor in children's post-divorce adjustment. The children who succeed after divorce, have parents who can communicate effectively and work together as parents.

Actually, children's psychological reactions to their parents' divorce vary in degree dependent on three factors: (1) the quality of their relationship with each of their parents before the separation, (2) the intensity and duration of the parental conflict, and (3) the parents' ability to focus on the needs of children in their divorce. 

Older studies showed boys had greater social and academic adjustment problems than girls. New evidence indicates that when children have a hard time, boys and girls suffer equally; they just differ in how they suffer. Boys are more externally symptomatic than girls, they act out their anger, frustration and hurt. They may get into trouble in school, fight more with peers and parents. Girls tend to internalize their distress. They may become depressed, develop headaches or stomach aches, and have changes in their eating and sleeping patterns.

A drop in parents' income often caused by the same income now supporting two households directly affects children over time in terms of proper nutrition, involvement in extracurricular activities, clothing (no more designer jeans and fancy shoes), and school choices. Sometimes a parent who had stayed home with the children is forced into the workplace and the children experience an increase in time in child care.

A child's continued involvement with both of his or her parents allows for realistic and better balanced future relationships. Children learn how to be in relationship by their relationship with their parents. If they are secure in their relationship with their parents, chances are they will adapt well to various time-sharing schedules and experience security and fulfillment in their intimate relationships in adulthood. In the typical situation where mothers have custody of the children, fathers who are involved in their children's lives are also the fathers whose child support is paid and who contribute to extraordinary expenses for a child: things like soccer, music lessons, the prom dress, or a special class trip. One important factor which contributes to the quality and quantity of the involvement of a father in a child's life is mother's attitude toward the child's relationship with father. When fathers leave the marriage and withdraw from their parenting role as well, they report conflicts with the mother as the major reason.

The impact of father or mother loss is not likely to be diminished by the introduction of stepparents. No one can replace Mom or Dad. And no one can take away the pain that a child feels when a parent decides to withdraw from their lives. Before embarking on a new family, encourage clients to do some reading on the common myths of step families. Often parents assume that after the remarriage "we will all live as one big happy family." Step family relationships need to be negotiated, expectations need to be expressed, roles need to be defined, realistic goals need to be set.

Most teenagers (and their parents) eventually adjust to divorce and regard it as having been a constructive action, but one-third do not. In those instances, the turbulence of the divorce phase (how adversarial a battle it is), has been shown to play a crucial role in creating unhealthy reactions in affected teenagers.

Joan Kelly, PhD, former president of the Academy of Family Mediators and prominent divorce researcher from California reports that, depending on the strength of the parent-child bond at the time of divorce, the parent-child relationship diminishes over time for children who see their fathers less than 35% of the time. Court-ordered "standard visitation" patterns typically provide less.

Divorce also has some positive effects for children. Single parents are often closer to their children than married parents were. This is can also be negative as when a child takes on too much responsibility because one or both parents are not functioning well as a parent, or when a parent talks to a child about how hurt they are by the other parent, or how horrible that other parent is. Often a separated parent will make an effort to spend quality time with the children and pay attention to their desires (Disneyland, small gifts, phone calls, etc). And you can imagine that some children might find some benefit in celebrating two Christmases and birthdays each year. If both parents remarry, they may have twice as many supportive adults/nurturers. At the very least, when parents can control their conflict, the children can experience freedom from daily household tension between parents.



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