How a divorce affects children is one of the main concerns of parents considering or going through with a divorce. Parents often worry that they will damage their children and negatively affect their children’s functioning. Will a divorce really cause negative consequences? The answer to this question is complicated, and depends on different factors. Some of these factors are under the control of parents, while other factors are not. So lets take a look at how divorce affects children, and the factors that make adjustment to divorce more or less likely to happen.
Some distress in children going through a divorce is normal and can be expected. Children tend to handle divorce in many different ways, and child reactions vary greatly according to a number of different factors. Researchers have looked into different risk factors for problems with child adjustment to divorce. They have found that child factors (i.e., a child’s personality such as easy going or irritable), social factors (e.g., community support, the number of stressful life events), and family factors all relate to a child’s level of adjustment following a divorce. Of all of these factors, a parent will usually have the most control over family factors. These factors include the relationship between the parents, individual parent adjustment to divorce, and parenting practices.
For younger children, the consequences of divorce may appear in different ways. Children can have a range of responses such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Depression can manifest through sadness, and loss of interest in things a child used to enjoy. Also, changes in sleep and food intake can be signs of depression. Among younger children, physical symptoms of distress such as stomachaches may also occur. Anxiety may be seen as an increase in clinging behavior and lack of self-confidence.
Aside from an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, children of divorce also tend to be more aggressive and have more behavior problems when compared to peers who come from intact families. Children from divorced parents also tend to have more difficulties with relationships in general. The findings of an increase in aggression tend to be more so for boys than for girls. As a whole, children of divorce also tend to be more vulnerable to drug, alcohol, and cigarette use compared to same age peers not from divorced families.
It is common for symptoms of distress to occur at different times through the divorce process. One of the most common things that parents see is an increase in distress across transitions between homes. It can take children time to adjust to living across both homes. A child may protest leaving each household, and be upset when adjusting to each new transition. The adjustment typically takes longer if both parents have trouble getting along. For those parents that don’t get along, the protests that a child has about leaving each parent’s home, is often mistakenly used as grounds for the child living in one home. Even though transitions are difficult, joint physical custody arrangements are usually in the child’s best interests.
Overall, academic performance also tends to be lower among children of divorce. It is thought that the differences between children from families of divorce versus intact families come from lack of supervision (leading to less homework completion and worse school attendance), and a parent’s decreased confidence in child achievement. One large study found that the level of family conflict was related to negative academic outcomes. Another factor that can protect academic achievement is the continued involvement of the father.
Even though there are characteristics about a child that are not controllable, and influence a child’s ability to cope with a divorce, a parent can make a positive impact on a child’s adjustment. Increasing one on one time with a child, maintaining positive expectations for a child’s educational achievement, increasing consistency with child discipline (not necessarily increasing discipline, just following through on discipline when needed), increasing parental supervision, and not engaging in open conflict with the other parent are all behaviors that can help minimize the ways in which divorce affects children.