Studies carried out on the effects of divorce illustrate that young children in divorced families experience more problems than those in two-parent married homes. These children have adjustment problems in school; they tend to struggle with self esteem issues and tend to develop behavioral deviances.
Hetherington (1999) found that 10% of all the children in two-parent households develop serious behavioral problems. On the other hand, 34% of female children and 26% of male children in divorced families were problematic. However, one must realize that not all young children from divorced families will experience problems; these studies simply indicate that, as a group, children from divorced homes are more problematic than children in married homes.
These problems emanate from a series of situations that are unique to divorce. Children in these situations experience difficulties because of parental loss. They typically lose contact with the non-custodial parent. Minor children need the practical and emotional support that comes from both parents. When divorce takes place, children loose the skills, knowledge and resources associated with one parent.
A study carried out by Kelly and Emery (2003) found that, on average, non custodial parents tended to visit their children once a week. If this parent is male, then children have a 20% chance of never seeing that parent again, two or three years after the divorce. Contact is a crucial factor in the establishment of strong parent to child relationships; this affects a child’s ability to adjust.
Analyses illustrate that fathers who make frequent contacts with their children in a non custodial arrangement tend to minimize conflict between the child and them. These children also fare better in their social and school lives. They tend to benefit from the warmth, help, and expectation-setting that come from increased contact with the non custodial parent.
Young children in divorced families experience more problems than those in married families because of economic losses in the arrangement. When a divorce occurs, children lose the economic resources that both parents would have contributed. As a result, the custodial parent is likely to struggle with provision of certain needs.
It is a fact that earning a small income than before can lead to interruptions. Such a caregiver would have to alter schools in order to minimize expenses. He or she may need to switch to a cheaper day care or minimize weekend outings. When the changes are substantial, the child may need to alter his or her relationships, or may have to lose friends. All these alterations may cause problems.
The divorce process also leads to intense life stress among children in these situations. As explained above, children in divorced homes must make so many adjustments after the divorce such as school and relationship alterations. These stressors are quite difficult to handle, and may lead to subsequent problems in the future.
A study carried out by Crowder and Teachman (2004) revealed that young children who grew up in a single parent home with more stresses, such as frequent relocations, were more likely to become school dropouts or become pregnant in their teens. If the custodial parent goes through multiple divorces, then the child is likely to experience social problems in the future. Increased stress comes from the feeling that the child has less control over his or her life than he had before the divorce.
Furthermore, if parents do not talk to their children prior to or during the divorce about the causes of the divorce, then children become more stressed. Some parents may talk to their children about the divorce but may not listen to their opinion. In this regard, children may still feel frustrated about the situation. Painful memories of all the changes that they underwent during the divorce may haunt them. This implies that divorce is indeed a distressful and painful period for young children.
Parents also play a significant role with regard to children’s health. The custodial parent’s mental health affects most children tremendously. If a custodial parent has adjustment issues, then this may affect the child’s well-being in a negative way. Furthermore, parental competence issues are a crucial contributor to the level of failure or success in divorced families. Parental practices tend to reduce immediately after a divorce.
This usually leads to some problems encountered by children in later life. Besides this, parents in single parent homes tend to expose their children to fewer child rearing skills. Sometimes, the capable parent may lose custody of a child in a divorce, and this may be detrimental to the child’s well being.
One of the most profound difficulties that children experience after divorce is the conflict between their parents. Tensions and conflicts are frequent between divorced parents. If these are intense and occur frequently, then children tend to report more complications in the future.
Types of problems manifested by children of divorced families
Children react differently to divorce depending on: the child’s developmental stage, the parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs, the prevalence and duration of conflict between the parents, and the relationship quality between a child and his parents prior to the divorce. If parents can deal with the above challenges positively, then a child is less likely to exhibit behavioral and developmental challenges later.
One of the common reactions among children after divorce is denial. This is likely to occur if the children are slightly younger. Some of them may make up stories in order to cover up the divorce.
They might reconcile their tensions with fantasies. For instance, some of them may assert that their parents will take them to Disneyland even when minimal contact exists between the children and their two parents. Conversely, some of them may talk about the non custodial parent’s move next door.
All these stories are attempts at resisting this painful separation from both parents. In older children, milder fantasies are likely to occur. For instance, many of them may be preoccupied with reconciliation. They may console themselves that their parents are going to get back together even when this is unlikely to occur (Temke, 2006).
Other children develop a fear of abandonment. After a separation, children start worrying about their future and the person who will care over them. Some of them may think that a divorce can also occur between parents and children and that their parents will also leave them. Such fears tend to increase when the custodial parent badmouths the other parent.
For instance, if the custodial parent says ‘Daddy is leaving you and me’, then the child may feel quite vulnerable to abandonment. Children manifest these insecurities through the use of words that demonstrate a need for greater protection.
Other children may exhibit excessive anger and hostility. Following the tensions and stresses that stem from the divorce, some children may use hostility to diffuse these stresses.
They may react negatively to their parents, schoolmates and siblings, if they have any. Most of the time, children may express anger towards the parent who they think is the source of the divorce. They can even get angrier when the custodial parent starts dating again. In divorce scenarios, children may triangulate. The latter term refers to rejection of the non custodial parent.
Alternatively, they may have divided loyalties when they try to satisfy both parents. Besides anger, children may also develop depression. Some of them may experience social withdrawal. Here, they may stop playing sports, going out or interacting with friends. Alternatively, others may start injuring themselves. Issues such as cutting are especially common among female adolescents. One may also detect depression in these children through loss of sleep, poor eating habits such as excessive or minimal feeding, and weariness.
In younger children, immaturity or rapid maturity is common. Some children react to divorce by trying to go back to the times when everything was okay. They may wet their beds or engage in baby talk as an attempt to look for security. Conversely, some children may grow up too fast. They may take charge and even presume the role of the other parent who left. This is an attempt to meet the needs of the custodial parent.
Guilt and blame are also quite common. Children sometimes feel responsible over the divorce. This may occur when parents fight over the children’s custodial arrangements or visiting schedules. Some of them may promise their parents exemplary behavior if they reconcile.
Children in divorced families report more behavioural and psychological issues. The problems emanate from economical difficulties, poor parental competence, inter parental conflict, minimal parental contact with the non custodial caregiver and life stresses. These issues may result in anger, immaturity or rapid maturity, excessive anger, abandonment and denial. Parents must try to assist their children in dealing with these issues by maintaining high quality relationships with them and minimising conflict between themselves.
Crowder, K. & Teachman, J. (2004). Do residential conditions explain the relationship between living arrangements and adolescent behaviour? Marriage and Family Journal, 66(11), 721-738
Hetherington, E. (1993). An overview of the Virginian longitudinal study of divorce and remarriage with a focus on the early adolescent. Family Psychology Journal, 7(4), 39-56
Kelly, J. & Emery, R. (2003). Children’s adjustment following divorce: risk and resiliency perspectives. Family Relations, 52, 352-362
Temke, M. (2006). The effects of divorce on children. University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Report, May 2006