How Divorce Affects Children

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How a divorce affects children is one of the main concerns of parents considering or going through with a divorce. Parents often worry that they will damage their children and negatively affect their children’s functioning. Will a divorce really cause negative consequences? The answer to this question is complicated and depends on different factors. Some of these factors are under the control of parents, while other factors are not. So, let’s take a look at how divorce affects children, and the factors that make adjustment to divorce more or less likely to happen.

Why the First Year Is the Toughest

As you might expect, research has found that kids struggle the most during the first year or two after the divorce. Kids are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief.

But many kids seem to bounce back. They get used to changes in their daily routines and they grow comfortable with their living arrangements. Others, however, never really seem to go back to “normal.” This small percentage of children may experience ongoing—possibly even lifelong—problems after their parents’ divorce.

Effects of Divorce on Children in Texas

Emotional Impact of Divorce

Divorce creates emotional turmoil for the entire family, but for kids, the situation can be quite scary, confusing, and frustrating:

  • Young children often struggle to understand why they must go between two homes. They may worry that if their parents can stop loving one another that someday, their parents may stop loving them.
  • Grade school children may worry that the divorce is their fault. They may fear they misbehaved or they may assume they did something wrong.
  • Teenagers may become quite angry about a divorce and the changes it creates. They may blame one parent for the dissolution of the marriage, or they may resent one or both parents for the upheaval in the family.

Of course, each situation is unique. In extreme circumstances, a child may feel relieved by the separation—if a divorce means fewer arguments and less stress.

Some distress in children going through a divorce is normal and can be expected. Children tend to handle divorce in many different ways, and child reactions vary greatly according to a number of different factors. Researchers have looked into different risk factors for problems with child adjustment to divorce. They have found that child factors (i.e., a child’s personality such as easy going or irritable), social factors (e.g., community support, the number of stressful life events), and family factors all relate to a child’s level of adjustment following a divorce. Of all of these factors, a parent will usually have the most control over family factors. These factors include the relationship between the parents, individual parent adjustment to divorce, and parenting practices.

Challenging for Younger Children

For younger children, the consequences of divorce may appear in different ways. Children can have a range of responses such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Depression can manifest through sadness, and loss of interest in things a child used to enjoy. Also, changes in sleep and food intake can be signs of depression. Among younger children, physical symptoms of distress such as stomachaches may also occur. Anxiety may be seen as an increase in clinging behavior and lack of self-confidence.

Aside from an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, children of divorce also tend to be more aggressive and have more behavior problems when compared to peers who come from intact families. Children from divorced parents also tend to have more difficulties with relationships in general. The findings of an increase in aggression tend to be more so for boys than for girls. As a whole, children of divorce also tend to be more vulnerable to drug, alcohol, and cigarette use compared to same age peers not from divorced families.

Behavior Problems

Children from divorced families may experience more externalizing problems, such as conduct disorders, delinquency, and impulsive behavior than kids from two-parent families. In addition to increased behavior problems, children may also experience more conflict with peers after a divorce.

Poor Academic Performance

Children from divorced families don’t always perform as well academically. However, a study published in 2019 suggested kids from divorced families tended to have trouble with school if the divorce was unexpected, whereas children from families where divorce was likely didn’t have the same outcome.

Overall, academic performance also tends to be lower among children of divorce. It is thought that the differences between children from families of divorce versus intact families come from lack of supervision (leading to less homework completion and worse school attendance), and a parent’s decreased confidence in child achievement. One large study found that the level of family conflict was related to negative academic outcomes. Another factor that can protect academic achievement is the continued involvement of the father.

Risk-Taking Behaviors

Adolescents with divorced parents are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as substance use and early sexual activity. In the United States, adolescents with divorced parents drink alcohol earlier and report higher alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and drug use than their peers.

Adolescents whose parents divorced when they were 5 years old or younger were at particularly high risk for becoming sexually active prior to the age of 16, according to a study published in 2010. Separation from fathers has also been associated with higher numbers of sexual partners during adolescence.

Helping Kids Adjust

Even though there are characteristics about a child that are not controllable and influence a child’s ability to cope with a divorce, a parent can make a positive impact on a child’s adjustment. Increasing one on one time with a child, maintaining positive expectations for a child’s educational achievement, increasing consistency with child discipline (not necessarily increasing discipline, just following through on discipline when needed), increasing parental supervision, and not engaging in open conflict with the other parent are all behaviors that can help minimize the ways in which divorce affects children.

Co-Parent Peacefully

Intense conflict between parents has been shown to increase children’s distress. Overt hostility, such as screaming and threatening one another has been linked to behavior problems in children. But minor tension may also increase a child’s distress. If you struggle to co-parent with your ex-spouse, seek professional help.

Avoid Putting Kids in the Middle

Asking kids to choose which parent they like best or giving them messages to give to other parents isn’t appropriate. Kids who find themselves caught in the middle are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

Maintain Healthy Relationships

Positive communication, parental warmth, and low levels of conflict may help children adjust to divorce better. A healthy parent-child relationship has been shown to help kids develop higher self-esteem and better academic performance following divorce.

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