Understanding The Effects Of Divorce On Children
By: Mason Komay
Updated February 11, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC
When a mother and father divorce, the effect on their child's behavior can be unpredictable. The negative effect of divorce on children can extend well beyond the initial emotional reactions of sadness, anger, and resentment.
Children of divorced parents are more likely to suffer academically or end up in trouble with the law throughout their young adulthood. Not all children react to the situation in the same way. Still, recent statistics show that the odds of a child suffering more long-term effects of their parents splitting up are rather high.
How Does Divorce Affect Children?
Depending on how old the child is, divorce can have a different effect on them. For instance, if they're an adolescent, a divorce may be easier because they've already practiced their independence, while a younger child still depends on their parents for everyday needs.
So, if the child wakes up from a nightmare and wants Daddy to comfort him, Daddy may now live in a different house, which can be frightening at such a young age. In comparison, a teenager who has moved past the nightmare phase may have an easier time coping with the divorce, because they have already begun to form their sense of independence.
However, young adults can have a hard time with divorce, too. For one thing, teenagers whose parents get divorced are more likely to abuse illicit substances, have unprotected sex, and get in trouble with the law. This is usually because they don't know who to turn to. As a result, they channel their negative energy into dopamine-packed addictions and harmful behaviors.
Another reason for this kind of downward spiral is that some households drop down to one income when the parents get divorced. This puts the children in that household at risk of living in a poverty level five times higher than that of children who live with both parents.
Children in school, no matter their age, may see a decline in their academic performance. Their grades may slip, and they may refrain from participating in any recreational or after-school sports or activities because they are distracted by their life at home.
Not every child whose parents are divorcing gets bad grades. In fact, some go on to become academic achievers with outstanding success. However, as more research unfolds, we've discovered that even children who do well in school and appear completely fine may actually be suffering from long-term trauma beneath the surface.
Divorce And Its Related Health Effects
Children may bottle up their sadness and anger when their parents are going through a divorce. This can cause them to get sick more frequently, and to recover slower than they would normally.
Of course, psychological issues also play a part and may develop into long-term conditions. For instance, children of divorce may be more likely to suffer from conditions brought on by a traumatic event, like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or phobias. Children may also feel like they are to blame for the divorce, and they may become confused as to which parent they're expected to listen to. This is especially true if the parents use their children as weapons against each other, as opposed to civilly co-parenting the children.
Children of divorce are also more likely to get cancer. This is because they are more likely to partake in activities like smoking, unprotected sex, and the overconsumption of alcohol - activities that have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing cancer.
Sadly, children of divorce also suffer from decreased life expectancy. This is mainly due to the health risks from engaging in harmful activities, as well as the toll that long-term mental conditions can have on a child's health. For instance, someone suffering from long-term depression and loneliness is more likely to contract diseases like cancer and heart disease. In addition, they may also have a slower recovery rate.
A Lack Of Understanding
No matter how many different ways parents explain their divorce to their children, the children may still not ever understand why their parents got divorced. Unfortunately, this can last well into adulthood. This is often because their parents are so focused on finding happiness and stability again that they don't pay as much attention to their children's needs. As a result, the children feel abandoned and confused. They may have thoughts like "Why couldn't Mommy just be happy with Daddy?"
Another common misunderstanding is why children of divorce resort to rebellious behavior. The typical assumption is that they are simply finding ways of coping with their pain, and possibly to punish their parents. In reality, it's an attempt to regain control of a life that they feel is spiraling out of control.
A Sense Of Order
If two parents decide to get divorced, it's important that the parent who lives with the child tries to maintain some sense of order and routine to help the child feel safe and secure. You also need to regularly reassure the child that they can depend on both of their parents to help them with whatever they need, whenever they need it.
This will build the child's trust in the reliability and routine of their home life. Remember that they're dealing with a tough situation that comes with pretty strong emotions. They need to know that they have a safe space to talk about these things.
For younger children, it may be difficult to accept a divorce for what it really is. The child may still believe, despite what their parents tell them, that their parents will get back together someday. For this reason, it can do more harm than good to participate in activities together after you've already split up. For instance, instead of dividing time with the child on holidays, some parents will get together for the day so that they can both spend time with the child. However, children seeing their parents together gives them the idea that they will get back together, which, in most cases, is far from true.
Remarriages can also be stressful for children. Not only do they have to get to know someone new, but that someone new is going to function as their parent. In addition, the new spouse may already have their own kids, so the children will need to learn how to get along and live together.
There may be even more people competing for the parent's attention than before, like the new spouse's family and friends, which are all new characters in the child's life. This is a lot to ask a child to adjust to - especially when it was never their decision in the first place.
Remarriage can also be painful if the child doesn't live with the parent who is getting remarried. This is because the remarried parent needs to devote more time to their new family, which may include more children that the child may view as their "replacements." This is more challenging when the remarried parent moves to a new city away from the child. The child may feel like, "Why bother? Mom has a new family now. She doesn't need me around anymore."
Couples who have children should not jump into a divorce as the easy way out. If you are unhappy, and you're not sure how to fix things, then you may want to consider couples counseling, or even individual counseling, to strengthen your marriage.
Sometimes though, you can try everything, and nothing works. In this case, divorce may be the best solution. Some couples who are in emotionally or physically abusive relationships may be doing more harm than good in staying together, especially if the abuser refuses to seek help. And even if the child is not being abused, seeing their parents in a domestic violence situation can be permanently damaging to their well-being.
Divorce should not be taken lightly when children are involved, no matter what. A divorce can be an incredibly dark chapter of a child's life. For instance, they now have to be shuffled between parents whenever they're told. They may have to get to know and become part of the remarried parent's new family, which is entirely out of their control.
While parents may be invested in seeking their satisfaction and happiness - something they have every right to do - they should always ensure that their children's needs are being equally met. The last thing children who are going through their parents' divorce need is to feel abandoned by the parent they live with, on top of everything else.
When dealing with a divorce, you're going to encounter all sorts of different emotions, which can make it challenging to consider talking to a professional counselor. However, in a situation like this, speaking with a licensed therapist can help ease the traumatic effects of divorce, not only for you but for your entire family. They can provide you and your partner with the tools you need to make the whole process as comforting as possible for your children.
Divorcing your partner is difficult enough as it is, and the last thing you should be dealing with is organizing countless face-to-face counseling sessions. This is where online counseling services like ReGain offer solutions. With the guidance of one of our licensed therapists, online counseling cuts out the need for long drives and inconvenient appointment times. Instead, you have the freedom to reach out to your counselor whenever and wherever you want to, at a fraction of the cost. Below are some reviews of ReGain counselors for you to review, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Dr. Anstadt is amazing. I appreciate him always reaching out to make sure things are going smoothly in between our sessions. He follows up and genuinely cares about my situation. I would recommend Dr. Anstadt to anyone who is seeking insight on coparenting and new relationships after divorce. Thank you for everything!"
"Lisheyna is amazing person with really beautiful insights. I was struggling with my separation and she helped me to regain new insights which helped to become friends with my ex-wife again and also understand her perspective. I am grateful to Lisheyna for her support and would highly recommend her to anyone seeking any kind of personal or relationship counseling."
Going through a divorce is challenging enough as it is, but that doesn't mean that your children need to endure the same effects. Your child will cope with the separation in their own way, and it's important to honor and respect their feelings. However, no matter how severe things have gotten between you and your partner, you still have time to get the advice you need to help your children through the process. We're here - take the first step today.