There are several key emotional factors that play a role in how a child feels throughout the entire process of their parents’ divorce and after the divorce has been finalized. The effect of some emotional issues may not arise until way after the divorce takes place. The following aspects often determine how divorce affects a child: age, gender, the relationship with the parents, and the maturity level of the child. Because of the amount of children who experience their parents’ divorce and the possibility that an equally high number of children will suffer same agony in the future, it’s important to understand the impact of divorce on children’s adjustment (Landucci, 16).
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Divorce is an unbearable occurrence for practically all children. The children’s initial reactions may include guilt, anger, and depression (Kaplan, 244). According to Smith children tend to hide their feelings of sadness and anxiety and have difficulty expressing their true feelings (55). They may also show changes in behavior such as fear, regression, sleep disturbances and grief for the other parent, which may cause them to respond with aggression or rebellion. VanderValk, Spruijt, Goede, Maas & Meeus, suggested that problem behavior following parental separation is a warning sign that the child is having trouble adjusting to the situation (534). The children might become disruptive, disobedient, and disregard their parent requirements as a way of displaying frustration about the upcoming divorce (Landucci, 16).
The relationship between parent and child may also change during the initial stage of divorce according to Wallerstein (410). The broken connection following the divorce causes the children to make immediate emotional and behavioral changes (410). Consequently, that broken connection changes the family dynamics as well. For example, the parent with primary custody may become stricter and more controlling while the absent parent becomes more lenient and sympathetic, perhaps because they are less accessible to the children. Both parents become inconsistent in their discipline routines and stop requiring their children to mature and grow up, which in turn causes them to have difficulty communicating with the children (Kaplan, 244).
Once children go through the first stage of divorce, some show a significant capability to improve, whereas others do not. How fast children adjust to their parents’ divorce in the beginning depends on if a secure atmosphere is set up and on the support system accessible to the child. According to the USA Today, “It is best to keep kids in the same house and school so they can retain the same friends, the same routines, and have some sense of stability in their lives” (8) at this unstable time immediately following the split. Unfortunately, sometimes a secure atmosphere and support system is not available. Parents are at a loss and have to change their own lives. Family members are often critical, which may change their relationship with both the children and the parents. The children’s relationships with friends may also be affected because some feel embarrassed about what is taking place in their family. Friends of the family may feel obligated to take sides and only continue interaction with only one parent. Consequently, the main support systems are decreased at a time when increased support is very important (Kaplan, 245).
Several of the early reactions to divorce eventually become less difficult or go away by the end of the first year to 18 months. However, the long term effects of divorce on children can be severe. In a study conducted by Kelly and Wallerstein, on children whose parents divorced during their middle school years, children were divided into two groups: early latency (7 and 8 years old) and late latency (9 and 10 years old). The participants in the study were examined immediately after the separation, 12-18 months later, and during a follow up interview one year later. The results revealed that the 7 and 8 year olds were sad, while the 9 and 10 year olds demonstrated symptoms of denial and avoidance. Both groups of children showed increased demanding and aggressive behavior because most of their mothers lacked disciplinary knowledge. At the follow-up interviews one year later all but 4 of the children who had suffered academically hadn’t returned to their previous levels (25).
Ten years later, Wallerstein continued to follow the children in the study above. In this study she found that the majority of the older children acknowledged feelings of neediness, sadness and a greater sense of vulnerability. Although it had been 10 years since the divorce, the children were still sad about losing their two parent family and the lack of contact they had with their other parent. They feared being deceived in relationships and were very worried about personal responsibilities. One fourth of the girls and half of the boys were considered poorly adjusted and at high risk (205).
How severe the long term effects of divorce will be on children depend on many factors following the divorce. In fact, the anxiety and stress after the divorce has more impact on the children’s mental health than the divorce itself. According to Kaplan, the children suffer profoundly if the parents continue to fight because they have difficulty coping with the stress of the break up when there is a lot of conflict between parents. If parental conflict and financial problems are reduced and if social support systems are in place, children’s adjustment problems are less severe (246). “Unfortunately, parents’ difficulties involving finances, loneliness, fear, anxiety about the future, and the loss of social supports reduce their ability to give the children what they need to soften the blow of divorce” (Kaplan 245).
Children may cope with divorce in different ways; however, their reaction to divorce differs by age, gender, and maturity level. According to Smith one-third of divorces happen when children are under the age of five. This age group has the most difficulty expressing their feelings because they are so young (65). Therefore, babies may not understand that their parents are divorcing, but they may respond to their parent’s attitude and behavior changes. Preschoolers often have a negative reaction. According to Wallerstein et al., they are too young to understand what is going on; therefore, they may blame themselves for the divorce. They may also regress; have separation anxiety, and fear being abandoned.
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School age children feel helpless and scared when their parents’ divorce. They frequently experience loyalty problems because they feel like they have to choose between their parents (199). According to Wallerstein et al., Approximately half of the children in this age group had severe drops in academic achievements during the first year of their parents’ divorce. This age group is also often angry at one or both parents. Teenagers tend to have difficulty coping with anger when their parents’ divorce (200). According to Smith, teenagers are vulnerable because they are starting to get an understanding of the adult world and sometimes are conflicted in how they should show their emotions (60). They often show signs of depression, acting out, emotional and social withdrawal, and have anxiety about their future (Kaplan, 245). They may also feel unloved, insufficient, ineffective, and attacked as a result of the divorce (Smith, 60).
The effect of divorce tends to be greater for boys than it is for girls. Boys are much more likely to experience academic, social, and psychological problem than girls. According to VanderValk et al., boys tend to act out their emotions through externalized problem behavior while girls tend to internalize their emotions. Girls raised by their father tend to be less responsible and less mature than girls raised by their mothers. On the other hand, psychologists believe fathers have an effect on their daughters’ development. Girls raised by their mothers tend to have difficulty relating to men later on. Girls with divorced parents are also more flirtatious, sexually precocious, and seductive. (Kaplan, 245).
Almost one in three children will undergo the pain of their parents divorcing. Therefore it’s beneficial to know how divorce affects children. Even through numerous children change from a two parent home to a one parent home with ease some face challenges as they make the transition into this new type of family. The less pain and stress there is in the home, the simpler the transition will be for the child. It is valuable to let children talk about what they are feeling so that they won’t develop behaviors that will affect them later in life. It is also valuable for parents to help their children develop coping skills to deal with their feeling regarding the divorce to guarantee that they develop strategies to help them grow personally, psychologically, and socially (Landucci, 20).
In conclusion, children first reaction to divorce can include a variety of emotions and behaviors. They usually recover from the immediate devastation of their intact family ending after a year or so; however, the long term effects of divorce can be severe if parents continue to fight and have no support system to support them transitioning into their new life. The use of divorce mediation services can ease some of the stress (Kaplan, 260).
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