How does divorce affect a child’s development?

Divorce is technically an event which takes place between two people. However, when children are involved, the impact of the divorce is far from isolated to the married couple. 

divorce-children

Instead, the lives of everyone in the family structure can shift drastically. This shift is so much the case that often when married, individuals with children find their marriage falling apart. They ask themselves and each other if they should remain together for the sake of their kids alone. 

Despite this query, the truth of the matter is that children raised in peaceful, supportive environments with the love and support of both of their parents have the best long-term outcomes. Whether that be with two married parents or parents who have divorced and live separately (often referred to as ‘co-parenting’), the child’s psychosocial function across childhood and adolescence is better when home environments are nurturing and relatively stress-free. 

A 2014 study examined family structure on the health of children following divorce. Researchers found that children with two divorced parents who maintained an amicable relationship had better long-term outcomes relative to children with two parents who remained married but argued and fought routinely. 

That said, the psychological effects of an actual divorce on children are highly variable. Divorce proceedings can be tense, stressful, and emotional for everyone in the family. Despite parents trying to shield their children from whatever legal proceedings are taking place, children are highly perceptive, and can often grasp any contention in the air.

Further, the adjustments to living in two houses, sharing time between parents, and acclimating to an entirely new way of life can take its toll.  

Initial impact across development 

Depending on the age of your child, the divorce and ensuing new way of life may be challenging to explain. 

 Young children often struggle to understand what is taking place concretely. Why do I suddenly have two rooms? Why do I spend the holidays split between mommy and daddy? Will daddy stop loving me if I spend too much time with mommy?

Parents may need to prepare for these questions. 

Grade school children tend to have the predominant worry that the divorce is their fault. They may worry that their misbehaviour or something they did was the catalyst for the divorce. As a parent, it is imperative that the child feels support and clarification that this is not the case.

Adolescents often feel anger above all else. They may be resentful that the changes in their home situation disrupt their social circle and school life. Rather than blaming themselves, they may blame one parent disproportionately for the dissolution of their marriage.

Alternatively, they may feel anger towards both of their parents for the changes and upheaval in their life during a natural time of transition.

Risks following divorce 

There are numerous risks in several different domains of functioning that children face when their parents separate. Two critical areas related to psychosocial functioning include:  

Mental Health Problems

A recent 2019 study suggests that regardless of age, gender, culture or age, children with divorced parents experience psychological problems at a higher degree than peers with happily married parents2. In particular, reports have indicated increased rates of anxiety (specifically separation anxiety) and depression. 

Behavioural Problems

Children from divorced families tend to exhibit more externalising problems, such as aggression, delinquency, and impulsive behaviour compared to peers from two-parent households. These outcomes may occur because they are mirroring actions they observed at home. Alternatively, in the first years following the divorce, it could be because they do not feel stable in their home situation. 

In line with this comes increased vulnerabilities for risk-taking behaviours. Particularly in the adolescent period, children with divorced parents have been known to engage in sexual activity, drink alcohol, and experiment with drugs earlier than their peers. A higher number of sexual partners during adolescence is also associated with separation from fathers early in childhood. 

divorce-children

How to promote resiliency and adjustment in children following divorce?

Although the outcomes mentioned above may seem scary, it is essential to remember that they do not occur in all children. Additionally, the good news is that despite these outcomes, there are definite steps that parents and caregivers can take to reduce any stress imposed on their children, no matter how old they may be. 

Co-parenting

Peaceful co-parenting is central to decreasing a child’s distress. There are clear links between the conflict between parents and behavioural problems in young children. Co-parenting successfully with your ex-spouse is vital in maintaining a healthy and happy home environment in both houses.

Avoid putting children in the middle 

You must be aware and conscious of how your communication with your ex-spouse affects your kids. Avoid having them pass messages between you and your ex-spouse. Do not ask them whether they would prefer to spend time with you or your partner. If there is a special school event or club activity, decide amongst the adults who will attend without putting the responsibility on your child to decide. This forced choice and ‘relay station’ treatment can cause anxiety and worry, particularly in introverted school-age children. 

Consistent rules and discipline

Communicate with your ex-partner to develop clear rules and guidelines for your parenting. Having different parenting styles is normal and okay but be sure to maintain consistency for things like bedtimes, after-school extracurriculars, and curfews. Reducing changes in circumstances from week to week (or however often the children move between households) can minimise friction and confusion in children internally and help you as a parent to remain authoritative. 

Get professional help

Divorce is complicated. It is okay not to feel okay. Although friends and other family members can be hugely beneficial, finding someone that can talk you outside of the family structure can also be useful. Reducing your stress level as a parent can allow you to have more space for your child to process their thoughts with you. 

Seeking professional help for your child is also a great idea. Individual therapy, particularly in older age children, is critical in helping your child sort through their emotions. Family therapy can be beneficial for younger kids, as you and your ex-spouse can facilitate and structure the session with the help of a professional. 

Key Takeaway

Overall, divorce does seem to have an impact on child development and psychosocial health. Mainly when the proceeding is contentious, or the divorce comes up unexpectedly, divorce is a strong environmental risk factor for lifelong function. Although this may be the case, parents and families can take specific steps to minimise the impact of these changes. In many cases, the life of a child with two happy parents following an amicable divorce can be full of positivity, health, and success.  

If you are currently going through a divorce and have children who are struggling, follow the steps listed above. If you feel you or your child would benefit from professional help, seek it out as soon as possible. 

Our family law solicitors can offer advice to keep your divorce stress free. Compromise is the essence of any agreement.

 

  1. Anderson J. The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorceLinacre Q. 2014;81(4):378–387.
  2. D’Onofrio B, Emery R. Parental divorce or separation and children’s mental healthWorld Psychiatry. 2019;18(1):100–101.
  3. Anderson J. The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorceLinacre Q. 2014;81(4):378–387.
  4. Anderson J. The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorceLinacre Q. 2014;81(4):378–387.
  5. D’Onofrio B, Emery R. Parental divorce or separation and children’s mental healthWorld Psychiatry. 2019;18(1):100–101.
  6. Anderson J. The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorceLinacre Q. 2014;81(4):378–387.

Related article: How to cope when your parents’ divorce?

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