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The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children

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Divorce can be an acrimonious and destabilising time for spouses and is often cited as one of the most stressful experiences a person may go through during their lifetime. 

Whilst those who have been through a difficult divorce will attest to this, what can sometimes be overlooked is the psychological effect of divorce on children. Some assume that children will simply adjust to a divorce given time. Others would argue that divorce is almost always better for the children as, if the parents are miserable in their relationship, then the children will also probably be unhappy. Some couples choose to stay together despite their differences, as they believe that this will be best for their children, providing them with an element of stability and security.

So, what, if any are the psychological effects of divorce on children; and how long term and pervasive will these effects be as children transition into adolescence and then adulthood? More than 30 years of psychological research has sought to provide an answer.

A number of studies have found that the children of divorced parents have an increased risk of adjustment problems as they enter adolescence and then adulthood. This is not surprising given that they are experiencing the biggest change in their life up to that point. They are witnessing the dismantling of the family unit which would once have provided them with a sense of safety, security and belonging. They may now find themselves with feelings of abandonment, self-blame or that they must “choose” one parent over the other. Furthermore, they will have to share time between different households and maybe even need to adjust to the introduction of step-parents and step-siblings as their parents form new relationships.

Among the adjustment problems are an increased risk of poorer academic attainment, behavioural problems, poor self-esteem, depression and increased alcohol and cigarette use. 

Furthermore, a study conducted by psychologist Judith Wallerstein interviewed the children of divorced parents over a twenty five year period and found that the effects of the divorce were still being felt into adulthood. In particular, many children of divorced parents experienced difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships as well as anxiety and depression.

However, other research has not found such pervasive effects arising from divorce. Psychologist E. Hetherington also conducted a 25 year study, using a more scientific method and found that a relatively small proportion of children from divorced families (15%) experienced serious psychological problems above what would be expected from the children of families whose parents stayed together. 

One factor that seems to be behind this more hopeful finding and which appears key in determining how well children adjust following a divorce is how their parents seek to resolve their conflicts. Where parents seek to resolve their conflicts by blaming and verbally attacking each other, not only during the divorce but also during the marriage itself, emotional problems are more likely to be experienced by the children. These negative effects can therefore be reduced by parents adopting a more co-operative approach with an emphasis on negotiation and compromise rather than a competitive approach where they seek to “out do” the other party. This has serious implications for how parents seek to relate to one another during divorce and children’s proceedings. One must remain mindful of the fact that children will be very sensitive to how their parents set about resolving their issues.

Furthermore, during both the divorce itself and post-divorce, one of the most important things parents can do to help ameliorate the negative impact of the marriage breakdown on their children is to offer them emotional support and reassurance, as well as taking an interest in their children’s activities, thereby providing a much needed sense of continuity, stability and predictability through this unsettling time.

In summary therefore, whilst children will experience an adjustment reaction in response to a divorce as their family structure is altered, the long term negative effects are by no means inevitable. There are steps that parents can take to help safe guard their children’s emotional well being which, rather than leading to adjustment problems, will have the opposite and more desirable effect of building the child’s resilience to stressful events in the future.