Divorce can have significant negative effects on children and adolescents. Intense parental conflict during or after a divorce is associated with mental health problems among their children. Hetherington found that approximately 25 percent of children whose parents divorced suffered serious emotional, social, and psychological problems as adults compared with just 10 percent of children whose parents remained married. Moreover, children who were very young when their parents divorced had extra difficulty forming intimate adult relationships, were unhappy with their marriages, and had higher divorce rates compared with children from intact families. Even 25 five years after a divorce, children from divorced families experience significant fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of change, and fear of conflict.
Children and Adolescents React Differently
Children and adolescents face significant stresses during a divorce, including parental fighting, break-up of the family, traveling between households, and having only one parent at home. Divorce tends to intensify young children’s dependence on their parents while it accelerates the development of independence among adolescents. Young children often regress to earlier stages of behavior while adolescents may act out and become angry at their parents during and after a divorce.
Young Children Regress
Divorce damages young children’s trust in their parents while making them insecure and dependent on their parents for support and security. The most difficult adjustment for young children is the transition from one household to another, because they are forced to leave one parent to visit the other. Shifting between households activates young children’s fears of abandonment and loss of love. Changing households induces insecurity, uncertainty, and instability into young children’s life at a time when they are especially vulnerable and experiencing significant anxiety and grief. Very young children may start wetting the bed and showing other signs of immaturity and stress during a divorce. Stable recurring routines can help children get through the trauma of a divorce. An authoritative parenting style also seems to help children adjust to divorce more quickly and strong attachments to both parents help overcome the negative effects of a divorce.
Children React Differently
Children who are secure, flexible, and mature tend to handle divorce fairly well. However, if children are having difficulty dealing with divorce, the parents often can’t help because they are overwhelmed themselves. The first year of a divorce is most difficult for children because of the many changes involved. After a year or two, most children settle into a new routine and their levels of anxiety and insecurity decrease.
Children struggle to understand why they have to live in two different homes and worry that one or both of their parents will stop loving them. Some children feel the divorce was their fault because they did something wrong. Because mothers most often gain primary custody of their young children, father-child relationships may suffer after a divorce. Without a strong father-child bond, girls have difficulty interacting with boys and boys may become delinquent. Divorce increases the risk of mental health problems among children and they are more likely to use drugs or engage in early sexual activity compared with children from intact families.
Adolescents usually assert their independence during and after a divorce. Adolescents separate from their parents and center their social life around friends. They often act out, rebel against parental discipline, and strive to be self-sufficient because they don’t trust their parents. Adolescents mask their grief with anger and resentment. The primary task for parents of adolescents is to help them become responsible, independent adults and allow them to develop independence under benign supervision.
What Parents Can Do
Parents should interact with their children in a kind way, avoid conflict, and never criticize the other parent around the children. They should also avoid putting the children in the middle of their divorce or forcing them to choose between parents. It’s important for parents to maintain a healthy relationship with children by not confiding in them or using older children as a support group. During a divorce, children need an adult parent who can take care of them, not a needy friend.
Use consistent discipline with the children or they will play one parent off against the other. Adolescents need guidance and tactful discipline during and after the divorce when they are becoming independent. Help your children feel loved and secure, discuss feelings, and teach them coping skills to deal with life.
Seek professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed. If you see serious signs of withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or acting out in your children, talk with a pediatrician, school counselor, or mental health professional about how to deal with the problem.