Effects of divorce on children

If you are a parent, you must be concerned about the effect that your divorce is going to have on your children. The negative effects of divorce are usually a result of the feeling of uncertainty of what is going to happen after the divorce, from the level of conflict between the parents, and from their relationship with their parents after the divorce. 

The main consequences of a divorce for children are usually that they have to move to a different home and sometimes change schools. Also, they will of course not see and be with their parents at the same time any more. Adjusting to these changes tends to take at least two years. 

Children are resilient, and with help, the divorce transition can be experienced as an adjustment rather than a crisis. Since the children in a divorce vary (different temperaments, different ages), the effects of divorce on children vary, too. 

Mixed emotions

Divorce can bring about negative emotions in children like bitterness, anxiety, stress, fear, a sense of abandonment, and a loss of self-esteem. 

Children may also experience guilt. Kids often wonder why a divorce is taking place in their family. They will look for an explanation, wondering if their parents no longer love each other, or if they themselves have done something wrong. Feelings of guilt are common in this situation, but can lead to various other issues. Guilt increases pressure, and can lead to stress and depression, among other health problems. 

Providing context and counselling for a child during divorce can help tackle this mix of emotions, particularly their misplaced guilt.

Health problems

The divorce process takes both an emotional and physical toll on children. Dealing with the stress may result in a higher perceptibility to sickness. This can stems from various factors, such as a struggle to fall asleep. Depression is also a potential outcome of divorce stress in children, exacerbating feelings of loss of well-being, and a deterioration in general health. 

Behavioural problems

Given the emotions and stress involved in divorce, it is natural for children’s behaviour to change when they are experiencing their parents’ split. This change in behaviour is dependent on the child’s age and level of maturity. 

  • Preschoolers: For young children, who need a lot of care, love and confirmation from their parents, divorce might make them even more dependent on their parents. They may develop habits such as bed-wetting, and avoiding doing simple tasks that they could do before. These are signs that they may be trying to get closer to their parents as the family dynamic is changing.
  • Pre-teens: Children between around 9 and 13 usually react to divorce by seeking more independence. They often feel betrayed by their parents for divorcing, developing mistrust. This can result in rebellious and aggressive behaviour. Negative emotions such as stress, fear, and loneliness can also lead this age group to feel more anxious and withdrawn during their parents’ divorce. Furthermore, trying to understand the changes going on in their family may leave children distracted and confused. This can affect their daily focus and potentially have a negative effect on their school performance. 
  • Mid to late teens: Adolescents tend to view divorce as betrayal and pull away from their parents. While attempting to distance themselves from their parents, they may act out in different ways. They can become extremely angry with one or both parents, leading to abusive behaviour like shouting and name-calling, or they may withdraw from family. Often, a teenager will take the side of one parents and “punish” the other with verbal abuse or by cutting off communication with them. While they grapple with their emotions, teenagers may become less interested in school and other responsibilities, and a focus on self-abusive behaviour such as binge drinking or drug usage. On the flip-side, however, some teenagers may try to improve their behaviour and grades, in an attempt to save their marriage, feeling that the divorce was somehow their fault.

Loss of interest in social activity

Research suggests that divorce can also affect children socially. Children whose parents are going through a divorce may struggle to relate to others, and tend to have fewer social contacts. This is often because children do not know of others around them whose parents have also gotten divorce, which leads to feelings of insecurity and loneliness. 

Increased insecurities

A decrease in children’s self-confidence during their parents’ divorce is often a result of their belief that they caused the divorce. Their parents may have had to leave out a lot of information when explaining the cause of divorce (e.g. there was infidelity, which they cannot tell their children about). This can cause kids to wonder, and their confusion can make them feel less secure. They may ask themselves things like, “Will my parents abandon me? Will I have to move houses? Who’s going to look after me?” Their daily routine has been shifted, and they need further support in understanding that they will still have safety and security in their new routine.

Loss of faith in marriage and the family unit

Research has shown that children who have experienced divorce are more likely to get divorced when in their own relationships later in life. This tendency to divorce may be two to three times as high as children who come from non-divorced families. 

Positive effects of divorce on children

Aside from the many potential negatives, there are in fact some potential positives that can result from a child’s parents getting divorced. For instance, some marriages are extremely toxic, exposing the child to physical and verbal abuse. Living with parents who fight can cause anxiety, and pressure the child to pick sides. Divorce can remove the child from this environment and grow up in a healthier, safer, and more loving environment. 

While the above-mentioned effects on children with divorced parents are all possible, they are not absolutes. Divorce is common in our times, and families are now more aware of the negative impact of the process on their children, as well as themselves. 

Supportive services are available, and there are ways of processing divorce so that it is more peaceful for families involved. Seeking support and guidance will help families to more successfully navigate this great shift in their lives, causing less pain for both parents and children. 

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