What a complicated question! There are hundreds of books dedicated to this very question and obviously most parents are very concerned about the effects of divorce on children. I however prefer to think of it a little differently.
Instead of reading about what’s going to “happen” to your children, I believe it’s more important to focus on how divorce will change their environment. Obviously those changes can affect your children, but as a parent, the primary thing you can do is determine whether you will provide a positive environment that children can flourish and thrive in or if you will provide a negative one that increases the risks of developing problems.
So, the most important question I believe parents should focus on after a separation or divorce is…
“What type of environment am I creating for my children?”
I try and have parents focus on this, because it’s important regardless of whether you’re divorced or not. You could still be married, yet create a horrible environment for your children – you can be divorced and create a healthy and supportive environment that they have been craving for years.
No matter what is going on in your own life, you are still responsible for creating the best environment you can for your children.
This blog post quickly addresses several of the common issues and characteristics you may encounter with your children as you both navigate this divorce.
Age: Younger Children vs. Older Children
Obviously the effects of divorce on children vary greatly between older and younger children. One primary reason is because older children will generally know what the story is and will have a better understanding of relationships and their difficulties. I was 13 when I found out about the affair and quickly learned many of the details about the “story.”
Another core reason for these different reactions is based on your child’s level of dependence or independence. I generally refer to three categories along the continuum: childhood, adolescence and young adult.
Let’s look at a few common areas where you will find that the age of your children can significantly alter their respective reactions.
NOTE: As you read this, please keep in mind that all of these are generalities and not certainties. Every child responds in their own way.
Trust & Dependability
Your younger children can feel less trust and a greater sense of instability after your divorce.
They will often question things about their own immediate lives. Will they have necessities: food, clothing, a place to live. They may ask you where you will live, where they will go to school, where will their room be.
When they are still in childhood, the divorce has a tendency to intensify the child’s dependence. They may revert to some old behaviors for a period of time to increase the attention they receive from their parents.
They may even wonder if they could potentially be abandoned as well. They may not fully understand how one parent could just leave. Which is why it is so important to continually emphasize that in no way shape or form was this their fault, and that you will ALWAYS be there for them.
Grief vs. Grievance
You will also notice that your younger children may feel grief and sadness, placing blame on themselves, while older children may place blame on the parents for the divorce.
The younger child will often have fantasies and desires that their parents will get back together. Parents who hold joint family gatherings and holiday events in an attempt to recreate family closeness can send mixed signals prolonging the child’s recovery.
I believe much of this goes back to the fact that older children simply have a better understanding of what happened and why their parents are getting divorced. As a result of this understanding many parents rely on their older children for emotional support. It’s important that you remember that you are the parent and they are the child. Refrain from putting your child into that position of supporting you emotionally.
If you child blames one of the parents specifically, it’s important to try and say positive things about the other parent and encourage them to maintain a relationship with them, if it’s feasible and safe. This may be extremely difficult depending on how your relationship ended. But I always remind parents to love their children more than they hate their ex.
You should also reiterate to them that the divorce is between you and the other parent, not between the child and their parent.
I often struggled when my Mom would say things like, “I can’t believe he’s leaving us.” When in reality, he was still very much there for me. Don’t pressure your children into taking sides.
If your child has already reached adolescence you may notice an increased rate of independence.
Adolescents have already begun to value their companionship with peers more heavily and their focus has grown more outside of the family and onto the outside world. The uncertainty at home can cause them to accept that independence more readily than their peers with married parents.
One thing I always urge parents to do during this process is to allow their children to make their own decision about what their relationship is going to be with the other parent. Which also increases their independence in the new situation they are in. Allow them that freedom to make that choice without trying to influence them based on your experience.
Your children are experiencing something different than you are and I think it’s important that you recognize that, especially in your adolescent and older children.
Responsibility For Children Of Divorce
This independence can lead to increased responsibility and maturity in adolescents and young adults. You may often find that siblings become closer and the older children may become more protective of the younger ones. For example,taking on some of the parenting responsibilities at home.
In addition, when living in two places and dealing with two environments forced upon the children to maintain a sense of stability between the two households. Learning how to prepare to leave one place, and how to get resettled in the other place takes some personal accountability.
As a child of divorce you also have to learn how to navigate being inbetween the two parents. There are many things as parents you can do to make this easier, but we as children still have to figure it out independently of you.
For one thing, do not turn your child into a messenger between you and the other parent. And don’t make them your therapist. They don’t need those responsibilities. This is their only childhood, let them have it.
Friends and Social Life
An unfortunate result of divorce is that the parents often times have to move. Which can result in a child being removed from their friends and social circles. If possible, many professionals suggest trying to limit the number of changes that occur all at once.
Every change can create an additional level of stress on your children and having to leave their friends or schools can be very difficult on top of everything else that’s going on at home.
Some children and teenagers may also end up receiving less parental supervision as a result of the divorce. These children often times can be at a higher risk of being influenced by their peers and can find themselves being more susceptible to alcohol, drugs, sex and deviant behaviors. Remember that kids will be kids. They will push boundaries regardless of your marital status. However, make sure and continue to be a parent otherwise they may look to their friends when they should be looking to you.
I do believe that it is very important as parents to keep your children involved in school and extracurricular activities as much as you can. Being on the swim team, and the track team and in choir was a big piece of my high school and middle school experience.
It can be bumpy during those early stages to stay focused on miscellaneous homework and studies when there is such an upheaval occuring at home. This is yet again another reason I strongly encourage them to be associated in some way or another with an extracurricular activity. I believe being around other kids who were still focused on school and homework kept me in line a lot of times.
It’s important to maintain your ground on things like homework and academics. Fighting the urge to be the “fun” parent is a challenge but it’s important for your children to still have boundaries when they are with you. Even if they don’t at the other parents house. Your children will realize in the end who has their best interest at heart.
One thing I noticed about my divorce experience was that my Mom always felt like she had become an outsider as a result of the divorce. As a child, you’re forced to be in school and kind of have to be involved and at school I quickly realized many of the other kids were going through the exact same things I was or already had gone through them.
I believe because of this I realized, much earlier than my Mom, that the divorce wasn’t that big of a deal and that divorce was kind of a common thing.
Long Term Impact on Children
As a child of divorce, I always get frustrated when I read the articles and books about the terrifying long term impacts divorce has on children. How I won’t really be affected for 10-25 years after the divorce, as if I have no choice in the matter, I’m doomed!
Judith Wallerstein a prominent divorce psychologist and researcher coined it the “sleeper effect.” How girls who seem to do well shortly after the divorce, find that after 10-25 years when they begin creating their own relationships, reawaken all their fears and anxieties they buried during childhood.
Yet scientific research does not support this view that problems in adulthood are prevalent, it instead shows that most children become well-adjusted adults.* And in fact, if you read some of her later work, you will find that she begins to soften her tone on some of her conclusions.
Obviously experiences shape who you are and your perspective on the world, but I’ve found that many of my friends whose parents divorced, myself included, are living very successful and healthy lives, with loving and caring marriages. If anything, I think witnessing many of the pitfalls and challenges our parents faced made us better equipped and prepared for what marriage is and can be.
Not all marriages are forever, but I know that all of my friends, divorced parents or not, truly want their marriages to last forever.
Unhappy Families vs. Divorce
I wholeheartedly believe that children stuck in continuously unhappy families and households can be worse off than if their parents divorced.
I have a close friend who was in a situation like this. A few years ago I told him I was doing a program called Parenting Through Divorce and he said to me, “I would have given anything for my Mom to divorce my Dad. It didn’t get better until he died.”
It breaks my heart that some children have to remain in situations like that. Most of the research will tell you that it typically takes two years for a child to readjust to a divorce and rebuild a normal, stable and healthy life. I think that is way more preferable than being stuck in an unhealthy household.
My siblings and I tried for a very long time to get our Mom to officially get a divorce. We knew it wasn’t a good situation and we wanted her out of the relationship. Obviously I know how hard it can be to give up on something you’ve been part of for 32 years, but eventually we all wanted her to let go.
Also, we didn’t fully understand why my Dad wouldn’t do it either, but we all believed that it was in the best interest of everyone if the marriage ended. Once the divorce was final and we got rid of the old house, it truly was a relief. It was like we could finally begin to create a new life within this new family structure.
Without a doubt divorce will affect your children, and it could potentially put your children at greater risk for certain difficulties. But, you will find that most children of divorce do not experience these serious problems any more so than children of non-divorced parents. Children are generally strong and resilient and most will have returned to a normal life after around two years.
There are many things you can do to make the transition easier for your children and just remember to focus on the environment you are creating for your children.