America has the highest divorce rate in the world and the current rates are the highest ever recorded in history. Nearly half of the children born in the 1980 experienced divorce or separation in America (Hetherington and Camara, 1984; Lamanna and Riedmann, 1985). Though divorce is more prevalent among blacks, couples who married early and people in low socio-economic classes, it affect all social classes, ages categories, religious and economic groups (Lamana and Riedmann, 1985).
Women empowerment, increased economic and financial difficulties, greater acceptance of divorce by the society and liberal divorce laws are some of the reasons that are thought to have contributed to the high rate of divorces in America today (Chalfant and Labeff, 1988). When divorce eventually occurs the parents hope that children will be relieved to see the end of a bad relationship, especially if violence, abuse, infidelity, and acrimony were involved. While this is true, the effects of divorce on children go beyond that.
There are far reaching effects of divorce on children even when no violence or acrimony is involved in the divorce. Children require about two years adjusting from the traumatic effects of going through a divorce situation. This paper examines the positive and negative effects of divorce on children.
Effects of Divorce in Marriages
When parents are undergoing the divorce process or have expressed the intention to separate, their children are faced with anxiety and stress. The children expect that things will change after the divorce, but they cannot tell how things will turn out to be.
This may leads to a sense of insecurity, instability and it can be frightening to most children. When divorce takes place children have reduced contact with one parent, often the father who has to move out of the house, at the same time the custodial parent may have to work long hours leading to physical, emotional and psychological absence from the children.
As a result the parent may have less time devoted to the children in checking their school work, their social growth and therefore may fail to provide the help children need to resolve their day to day challenges.
After divorce occurs, there is loss of the routine and order that children have been accustomed to; regular events such as meals and fixed sleeping time may be lacking. Planned family activities such as trips, vacations, church attendance, and leisure activities may no longer take place. The family may be forced to move from their home to another location, often poorer neighborhoods. Sometimes they may be forced to change schools, lose their friends and other familiar social contacts (Hetherington, 1979).
They may experience decreased standard of living as they have to depend on the income of one parent. In addition children may have to face heavy responsibility at an early age, the family and house may seem disorganized and they may have to provide emotional support to their parent at an early age too.
Children can also experience loss of emotional security; divorce may come as a shock to children especially if their parents have been concealing their disagreements from the children. The behavior of the parents may change due to the divorce; they may be depressed, euphoric, angry, impatient, and erratic and may displace their emotions on the children either through withdrawal or dispensing discipline.
After divorce individuals undergo challenges such as loss of identity, loneliness, powerlessness, despair and the need to cry for out for help. In fact, one research study indicates that the highest rate of suicide in America occurs amongst divorced persons (Kennedy, 1978). These emotional and behavioral changes that parents undergo can have significant impact on children.
The child’s reaction to these disruptive changes depends on many things such as their temperament, past experiences, age and gender. Out of these, age and gender are the most significant. For young children who are aged between three to five years, the loss of routine is the most disturbing factor. Lack of predictability such as meal time can lead to a lost sense of security.
Young children blame themselves for causing the divorce and they feel guilty about it. They misinterpret their parent’s anger or sadness and feel that their fault might have been the reason. They fear that their relationship with their parent will end just like the relationship between their parents ended. These children will exhibit change in behavior such as prolonged periods of silence, sadness, confusion, forgetfulness and may experience sleeping difficulties (Kolstelnik, Stein, Whiren and Soderman, 1988).
Children aged between six to eight years will inhibit anger towards both the departed parent and the custodial parent. They tend to blame the custodial parent for either causing the divorce or not doing enough to prevent it. The children may experience loyalty conflict and often have fantasy about the reconciliation of their parents.
They are likely to exhibit abnormal behavior such as sadness, excessive crying, guilt, and are likely to be disorganized in school (Kolstelnik et al, 1988). Older children may be embarrassed by the divorce, and the embarrassment may increase if the parent starts dating another partner or has a new sexual partner.
Preadolescents and adolescents who are undergoing emotional and physical changes may find it difficult to deal with their parent’s sexuality. However, these older children tend to be more understanding of the situation than young children; they distort it less and have more outside resources such as school friends, to help them handle the difficult transition period (Kelly and Wallerstein, 1975).
Preadolescent children may feel ashamed of what is happening and may attempt to cover up their feelings by showing courage and maintaining poise. They will support the one parent while blaming the other whom they believed caused the divorce. They experience headaches and stomachaches. Teenage children may experience delayed entrance into adolescence and may experience anxiety about sex and marriage.
They may worry they may not achieve emotional intimacy in their lives and that they may never get married or be successful in marriage. They may be angry at their parents and new partners when their parent starts dating again. They will exhibit withdrawal from family activities and show independent behavior and will probably keep mourning for the good family they had before the divorce (Kolstelnik et al, 1988).
Generally children of divorced parents, at all ages express anger to one or both parents, they tend to focus on their loss and their resentment is expressed in aggressiveness, disobedience, whining, nagging, dependence and withdrawal of affection (Hetherington and Camara, 1984). In terms of gender, girls tend to adjust and cope better than boys. It has been noted that boys as young as four years onward present a huge challenge to their mothers after divorce.
In the first years, when the mothers punish their boys, they tended to respond with increased non compliance and aggressiveness. This leads to the mothers feeling incompetent, anxious and depressed.
Any attempt to further punish the boys, leads to further aggression and non compliance leading their mothers to feel increased anxious and incompetent. This also affects the boys’ behavior in school where they become increasingly aggressive to fellow students. Eventually, the aggression wanes but generally even after six years they are considered more aggressive than their peers.
Girls on the other hand adjust quickly than boys, after two years their behavior is as similar to those who come from normal families. It however possible for girls to become withdrawn and they may become sexually active at an early age. This exposes them to the risk of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Boys also adjust to the reality of the divorce albeit slowly, this is because they are more vulnerable than girls since their relationship with their parents in times of trouble is neglected compared to girls. Parents perceive boys to be stronger than girls and thus they may not give them support during stressful periods, on the contrary they are likely to be shunned or be mistreated compounding their misery (Hetherington and Camara, 1984).
Nevertheless, divorce can have positive effect on children especially if previously they experienced violence, drug and sexual abuse as well as the continued fighting between parents. After divorce, the family can live in safety and peace, providing the children a better environment to grow in.
Slowly the children become confident, and acquire many skills they wouldn’t have had in an abusive home. When compared with families that remain intact while violence, abuse and confrontation continue, children from divorced families are happier and more confident. Often children from divorced families after adjustment, perform well in school, are organized and well behaved just like the other children from normal homes.
The immediate reaction of children to divorce is fear, shock, guilt, shame, denial and despair. Children may exhibit negative behavior in school such as aggressiveness, disobedience, lack of concentration and truancy. As a result of this, they may get low grades in school and eventually drop out. They may have difficulties relating with other students and are often engaged in crime, violence and drug abuse.
Parents and teachers should understand the effects of divorce on children and learn to help them cope with these effects. Whereas most children will adjust after two years divorce, most continue to experience significant challenges even into their adulthood.
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Kolstelnik, M., Stein, L., Whiren, A., & Soderman, A. (1988). Guiding Children’s Social Development. Cincinnati, OH: South Western.
Lamanna, M. A., & Reidmann, A. (1985). Marriages and Families: Making Choices throughout the Life Cycle. 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.