By Jolie Warren, Marital and Family Therapist
I’m not one of those experts who believe that divorce has little significant effect on a child’s life. I believe that divorce can set a child up for lifelong emotional struggles. The divorce of a child’s parents leaves them with negative emotions they will deal with throughout their lives in one way or another. In this article, I attempt to explain the truth about children and divorce and how divorce can affect their emotional health.
Yes, they learn to adjust to the fact that their parents are divorced, but the sadness caused by the divorce lessens with time but never goes away. On top of a child’s regret over a parent’s divorce, there can be devastating consequences if the parents do not responsibly handle the divorce.
The Unvarnished Truth About Children and Divorce
I bristle when I hear parents say that children are “resilient” and can “handle” their divorce. I’ve talked to adults who were devastated years after their divorce was finalized. Yet, for some strange reason, they believe that their children are more capable of getting over and learning to live with a situation they find hard to accept and move on from.
Parents’ belief that children are more emotionally flexible and pliant than they are sets them up for disaster when their parents divorce. A child’s divorce experience is shaped by whether or not parents continue to put their children’s well-being and security first during the divorce process.
4 Reasons It’s Important to Put Children First During Divorce
- Divorce means huge changes in the lives of children. It can also mean direct involvement in the conflict between parents, changes in where they live, economic hardship, broken bonds with a parent, loss of emotional security, and a multitude of emotional stressors.
- Divorce means the loss of a child’s family, the center of their universe. If a child is raised in a happy or low-conflict family, that family is the base of their security. It allows that child to go out into the world and broaden their horizons because they know there is a safe place to return to. The loss of an intact family is like a death to the child. There will be a period of grieving and a need to replace the security they had in the intact family with something new.
- Divorce increases a child’s risk of psychological, educational, and sociological problems. A parent’s divorce touches every aspect of a child’s life. A child’s relationships with friends will change, and their ability to focus and concentrate in school will be affected. As a result, there is an increased possibility of problems with anxiety and depression.
- Divorce causes children emotional pain. Regardless of how hard a parent tries and how well they parent, a child will feel sadness and loss during and after a divorce. Your divorce is going to hurt your children! And please, don’t fall for the nonsensical belief that, “if the parent is happy, the child will be happy.” I promise you unless your child is witnessing or a party to domestic abuse or high conflict, the child couldn’t care less if Mom and Dad are happy. Nothing could be further from the truth; children are concerned with their own happiness and security, as it should be.
So, don’t project your need to divorce so you can be “happy” off onto your children. You will do them no favor, and it will free you up to ignore their pain due to a skewed belief that is not correct.
What Are the Negative Effects of Divorce on Children?
If you contrast children from intact families to children of divorce, children from divorced families are:
- Twice as likely to have to see a mental health provider,
- Twice as likely to exhibit behavioral problems,
- More than twice as likely to have problems with depression and mood disorders,
- Twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating,
- Twice as likely to divorce themselves as adults,
- Less socially competent and tend to linger in adolescence before moving into adulthood.
Andrew Cherlin, a family demographer at Johns Hopkins University, said that even those who grow up to be very successful as adults carry “the residual trauma of their parents’ breakup.”
In other words, when we, as adults, decide to divorce, we go against our natural parental instincts: protecting our children from harm. Some would argue that divorce in and of itself does not cause harm to children. They believe that it is the behavior of the parents during a divorce that determines how a child will fare or what the consequences will be.
I agree that, as parents, we can lessen the negative effects of divorce on our children. There are obligations that parents have during divorce that can help their children cope. The issue I have, though, is this: During my career as a divorce family therapist who has worked closely with divorcing clients and their children, the children seem to take a backseat to their parent’s needs during that time.
Parents are more focused on the legal process of divorce and their own emotional needs than their children’s, and that’s the sad truth about children and divorce. Until I see a change in how most parents behave during a divorce, I will hold onto my belief that children are irreparably harmed by divorce and suffer due to parents who cannot parent and divorce simultaneously.