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Short and long term effects of divorce

The purpose of this essay is to discuss some issues related to the effects of parental divorce on children. A large body of research provides considerable information about the consequences of divorce on children but because of space limitations an extensive description of all these findings is not possible. I will start out by mentioning some of the central questions in current research on divorce without many details. Undoubtedly, divorce has become a social phenomenon in many Western countries over the last few decades. According to Amato and Previti (2003), divorce is not a single event but a multistage process of continuous and stressful changes that occur over time. There are three phases during the divorce process: a) the acute phase lasting about 2 years and in which the emotional and physical separation takes place b) the transitional phase in which the experiences of each parent are marked by ups and downs while they establish separate lives and c) the post-divorce phase in which each parent has adopt a new lifestyle ( Wallerstein,1985). For a child the parental divorce is not related only to the disintegration of the relationship between mother and father but it is also related to the disintegration of the relationship between the child and one of the parent usually the father because of the fact that when divorce occurs the majority of children remain in the custody of their mother ( Seltzer,1991 ).

Researches have demonstrated that children with divorced parents present a various cluster of problems including emotional disturbances, social and behavioural difficulties and academic failure (Amato, 2000 ). The nature of children’s response to their parents separation is determined by factors such as the child’s age and gender, the child’s temperament and personality and the developmental level of the child (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan ,2002 ). In addition to the child’s age some studies suggest that younger and cognitively immature children display more long-term adjustment difficulties in comparison to older children (Allison & Furstenberg , 1989; Zill, Morrison & Coiro ,1993), whereas other studies support that divorce during adolescence is more harmful than divorce during childhood (Chase-Lansdale, Cherlin & Kiernan, 1995 ). Hetherington et al . (1998 ) claimed that the evidence above is inconsistent and suggested that both of the parameters of time such as the child’s age at the time of divorce and at the time of adaption are important in order to understand the impact of parents’ divorce on children’s adjustment. In terms of sex some studies have shown that divorce is related to more adjustment problems for boys than for girls (Hetherington, 1989 ) whereas other studies more recent have found that gender differences are less pronounced and consistent than was previously believed. However, children from divorced parents have reported a considerable increase in behavioural problems in adolescence with this increase being more obvious in girls than in boys (Hetherington, 1993 ;Hetherington et al . , 1992 ) Finally , children with an easy temperament and with high self-esteem are more likely to demonstrate positive responses and to cope with moderate levels of stress the new challenges of their lives ( Hetherington, 1989,1991 ).

Divorce leads to several changes in children’s life experiences that might be expected to harm their development. As primary attachment bonds change, children often display an antisocial and aggressive behaviour with low control of self-regulation. To a smaller extent divorce is also related to internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depressive symptoms. In preschool children the signs of stress and anxiety are greater a cause of the fact that they are emotionally and cognitively immature and they lack of relationships outside the family to which they can seek for emotional support (Hetherington,1992 ). During this age child’s thought is egocentric with a limited ability to reason logically. Children often feel responsible for their parents divorce, they accuse themselves for the parental conflict and they express fantasies for parental reconciliation ( Hetherington,1979 ; Wallenstein & Kelly,1980 ). At this age children also have to deal with the fear of change and the fear of being abandoned (Wallenstein,1987 ). From the psychoanalytic perspective the preschool period of development of the child’s personality is critical for the growth of primary attachment bonds to the parent of the same sex through identification. If divorce is taking place the child’s identification may be altered and this might affect the future development of the child’s personality (Hamilton,1977;Cashmore,1985;Teyber & Hoffman,1987 ). The impact is deeper for the boy because he is not able to identify with his father and this might lead to a strong identification with the mother having as a result the “feminization” of the boy (Barnes,1984;Mackey,1985 ). In addition to the Oedipal stage at this preschool age there is an attraction for the opposite-sex parent and a repulsion of the same-sex parent. Both boys and girls pass through this stage in order to resolve their conflicts. For the boy non resolution might have as a result fear of his father and not identification with him, fear to love his mother or another female and an adaption of a female role in a homosexual relationship. For the girl non resolution might have as a result fear of her mother and not identification with her, fear to love her father or another male and an adaption of a male role in a homosexual relationship (Klein,1973;Cashmore,1985;McCoy,1987 ). Undoubtedly attachment theory has addressed a central role in the study of children’s responses to divorce. Attachment is defined as the emotional bond that persons form in close relationships. Separation from parents and visitation arrangements diminish children’s sense of security and lead the child to be more affected by the negative long-term consequences of divorce. Studies have shown that preschool children who had been classified as insecure were totally dependent on adults and provoked teacher’s negative attention (Sroufe, Fox & Pancake,1983 ).Of a particular interest is the fact that older children aged between 9 and 10 years old use defense mechanisms such as denial, courage and conscious avoidance in order to cope with the feelings of loss, loneliness and helplessness that parental separation has provoked to them. They feel anger and ashamed of their parents divorce but after a period of time they come to accept it. For many children, problems decrease with time as the family re-establish the necessary equilibrium but on average children of divorced parents are less emotionally, socially and academically well-adjusted than children of intact families (Amato & Keith,1991 a; Hetherington,1993 ;Hetherington et al . ,1992;Zill, Morrison & Coiro,1993 ).

However, some of the negative outcomes of parental divorce continue in adolescence and even in early adulthood. Developmental tasks such as independent behaviour, self-control, academic achievement and formation of close relationships may cause some difficulties in the adjustment of the children of divorced parents. In comparison with peers of non divorced parents it was found that adolescents of divorced families are more susceptible to not finish school and to engage in antisocial and aggressive behaviour (Achenbach & Edelbroch,1983 ). It has been stated that the long-term implications of parental divorce for adult achievement and quality of life may be more serious than the short term emotional and social implications presented in childhood ( Amato & Keith,1991a ). In fact, adults who had experienced the separation of their parents are more likely to be unemployed and to have financial difficulties (Amato, in press; Keith & Finley,1988; McLeod,1991; McLanahan & Sandefur,1994 ). In addition they may experience greater anxiety in developing stable and intimate relationships (Amato,2000 ). An explanation of the difficulties that exist in the personal relationships among the adults of divorced families is given by the transmission of the idea that marriages do not last for ever and that non satisfying relationships should be ended (Amato & De Boer,2001). Researches have demonstrated that adults who experienced parental divorce are less optimistic about the duration of their marriage and assess divorce less negatively than other adults from non divorced families do (Amato & Booth,1991 ).

Some explanations of the conceptualization of the effects of divorce refer to the ability of the noncustodial parent to maintain an harmonious relationship with the child, to parents ability to resolve their problems (Wallenstein & Kelly,1980; Amato,1994 ) and to the emotional and economic stress that mothers have to deal with immediately after divorce (Duncan & Hoffman,1985 ). A research conducted by Hetherington, Cox, and Cox (1982),provided evidence that mothers during divorce become more punitive and authoritarian with their children and this type of parental style has been related to the presence of symptoms of depression (Field,1984) and could be a precursor for attachment insecurity among young children who experience parental divorce.

Despite the relationship between parental divorce and negative implications for the children, some recent studies indicate that there are also positive outcomes for offspring. Young adults in divorced families may establish close and intimate relationships with their mothers(Arditti,1999 ) in contrast with the research mentioned above which states that divorced mothers are more punitive and authoritarian with their children. Another positive outcome of marital separation on offspring is based on the independence in young adulthood. Young adults from separated parents demonstrated an increased level of independence facilitated by both parents. Children who experienced parental divorce assume additional responsibilities and thus are more susceptible to become independent at an earlier age (Weiss,1979 ).They are also expected to understand the importance of being more self-reliant.

Children are always the innocent victims in a divorce situation. Although it is very difficult and painful for children to understand the reasons for the divorce, parents should try to discuss with them and explain to them that they are not the cause of their problems. It has been stated that experiencing the dissolution of the family is likely to leave the child with permanent scars that will affect all of its life. So, is an urgent need for divorced parents to provide children with as much support as possible and to assume their responsibilities in order to minimize the negative outcomes of divorce on them.

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