Parents Divorce - Short Term & Long Term Effects on Children

Effects of Divorce on Children

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Rashmi Prakash (Psychologist/Psychotherapist)
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The impact of divorce on children varies from child to child. Some might have difficulty in accepting the situation while others might find it emotionally draining. But it is rare that one child will face all of the below discussed side effects of divorce. However, it helps to know the negative effects of divorce on children, if you are going through one.

Side Effects of Divorce on Children

Knowing the side effects of divorce will better equip you to deal with your child in the most positive manner possible. The short-term effects of divorce are mostly psychological effects of divorce on children, while long-term effects are the repercussions of divorce.

Short-term Effects:

  1. Anxiety: Separation anxiety is an expected reaction to the break of trust that children experience when their parents separate. Also, till the complete proceedings of the court are over, a lot of things remain uncertain and unclear in the child’s mind. And a child without answers is bound to be anxious most times.
  1. Constant Stress: Divorce is a stressful experience both for parents and children. It is possible to reduce the stress that children experience during this time through proper communication. Assuring them that they will be loved unconditionally by both parents in spite of the divorce is essential. It is important to emphasize that the child is in no way to be blamed for the divorce and the unhappiness is in no way related to them.
  1. Intense Sadness: Feeling sad during through a divorce is a completely expected reaction in children. While they eventually get over it, it is important to let them find healthy and acceptable ways to deal with sadness. The sadness can take extreme manifestation in the form of depression. It is important to seek counselling if it happens.
  1. Mood Swings: The discomfort due to divorce can manifest in the form of mood swings and irritability in children. The anger or irritability is a mask for anger at the situation, while some children can also become withdrawn. Therefore, it is important to provide them with channels of communication and let them understand the cause of divorce. It is a situation where they need love and support from both the parents.
  1. Distress: This is seen in children whose parents go through a divorce involving custody battles and visitation issues. Other factors such as level of marital conflict, violence against a partner or child, the parent’s mental health can all contribute to aggravating the distress.

Long-Term Effects:

  1. Substance Abuse: Research has shown that both sons and daughters of divorced families are more likely to smoke. Of children dealing with a divorce, there is a 48% chance that the boys will smoke before they turn 18, and a 39% chance that girls will. They are also more prone to give in to alcohol and other addictive substances.
  2. Poor Social Skills: Children from divorced families tend to develop trust issues and hence make less social contacts. As they grow up, they might have difficulties in building intimate relationships. The probability of divorce amongst such children is twice as high compared to children from stable families.
  1. Poor Education: The age of the child at which the parents divorce each other also has an impact. Younger children suffer more. The more the number of changes that the child has to adapt to, the more the difficulty faced at school. Boys may turn aggressive and have a problem getting along with peers and teachers. While girls tend to become sad or depressed.
  1. Depression: Sadness which is a short-term effect of divorce has chances of turning into depression in the long run. It has been shown that children who witnessed their parent’s divorce have a higher chance of falling into depression and social withdrawal. Studies show that divorce can be a contributing factor in bipolar disorder in children.
  1. Socioeconomic Disadvantage: The trauma of divorce can impact or stunt a child’s progress in school. This, in turn, can affect their college education and further development in life. Similarly, when parents from lower strata of economy divorce, the custodian of the child are likely to face financial problems that can impact the child’s education.

Long-Term Effects:

Factors That Play a Crucial Role in the Way Divorce Affects Children

The crucial elements that come into play during divorce include:

  • Age at Divorce: Early findings stated that separation from parents at a very young age had more negative effects. But since, it has been proven that in the later years these kids appeared more well-adjusted than their older counterparts. In general, younger kids tend to have problems with personal adjustment and relationships. While adolescents tend to have difficulties in sexual relationships and develop anti-social behaviour.
  • Socio-economic Status: It is seen that children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds experience greater hardships after their parent’s divorce. The economic deprivation along with parental hostilities take a toll on the custodial parent which leads to a poorer adjustment in children. The socioeconomic background also influences the intellectual, academic and personal development of children.
  • Gender: Surveys and studies have reported contradictory conclusions on the effect of divorce on boys and girls. Some surveys report that boys have a tougher time adjusting post-divorce of parents, while others suggest girls have more difficulties. Finally, some studies found no differences in both the gender’s adjustment mechanism.
  • Child’s Personality: Each child has a different personality and therefore reacts differently to situations. Even within a family, children can be affected differently by divorce. A child’s method of dealing with stress can also affect the post-divorce situation.

What Are the Positive Aspects of Divorce?

Unlike what most people believe, divorce can at times be a good or positive thing – especially when the relationship is abusive or unhealthy for the people involved.

  • When a relation wreaked by substance abuse and disrespect comes to an end, it benefits both the parents as well as the children. The children will most likely make the decision to live with the saner parent, and the clean environment they are exposed to can emphasize the big differences in their lives. The chances that the children will take note of their life experiences and stay away from drinking and smoking is very high in such a scenario. Here divorce plays out to their advantage.
  • After the divorce, children no longer have to witness parental conflicts or domestic violence, both parents are able to move on and find their grounding. Each as an individual is happier than before; this translates to a happy child who spends time with both separately.
  • Kids get to spend more time with each parent individually. Usually, as a result, the parent tends to concentrate more on giving them quality time and be fully focused on them.
  • After the divorce, parents might find someone else to be happy with or remain happy on their own. The children get to understand that life goes on even after a seemingly disastrous episode. They learn that starting afresh in life is possible.

How to Reduce a Child’s Suffering in Parental Separation

Children have tender minds and are not socially or emotionally as strong as full-grown adults. The impacts that divorce leaves on their minds can be deep and irreversible. Here’s how you can try and reduce the severity of the impact.

  • Show Quality Parenting: Clinical studies have shown that quality parenting before and after divorce can help the child to deal with the situation. Quality parenting should be a combination of warmth and nurturing along with effective discipline and limit setting. One of the important ways parents can be reassuring in the face of divorce is by affirming their love for children. Even if teenagers show distaste toward affectionate gestures, it will do good for them to be expressively shown a parent’s love, to reduce the effects of divorce on grown children. Setting up some family traditions to spend time together also helps. Another side of effective parenting involves discipline, which sets clear guidelines, limits and age-appropriate restrictions in place. It is important for the children to understand that all feelings are okay, while all behaviours are not. Parents should also be able to maintain an open channel of communication with children. This is also a time that children learn to be empathetic, to understand how to solve problems and which problems cannot be solved.
  • Understand Hidden Emotions: Studies have shown that parents often fail to understand the causes of stress in children and also how much their stress has changed over the last year. There is a disconnect between what parents believe to cause worry and what is worrisome for children. One way the parent can understand the child’s emotions is by helping him/her to identify and name their feelings. This calms their amygdala, increases activity in the prefrontal cortex and helps them in developing neural pathways for dealing with strong emotions, problem-solving and rational thinking. Children often need time to completely express themselves, and they do so when they believe their parents will listen patiently without judgment.
  • Manage Conflict: How parents deal with a marriage that has come to an end and go about beginning a new life can have a huge impact on children. A responsible parent protects a child from abuse and shows due respect to the child’s other parent. There are a number of effects of parental separation on child development, but it is essential to protect a child from an abusive or violent marriage. The parents can protect a child from the conflicts of marriage is by reframing their relation to a business-like partnership for parenting. In high conflict relationships, parallel parenting can be adopted where parents have minimal contact with each, while the child gets to spend one on one time with each parent. Mediation is an effective tool in such situations. It is seen that after years of mediation the parents are better able to co-parent and resolve conflicts as compared to a litigation control group.
  • Consider Intervention Programs: Preventive interventions have a positive impact on kids, these programs help them by reducing their sense of isolation and clarifying misconceptions. These programs also teach children to communicate with parents, solve problems and develop life skills useful for such uncertain situations in life. There are intervention programs for parents as well, that helps them to reframe their relationship post-divorce in the most positive manner. These sessions provide positive and empowering messages to parents about the impact of their actions on children and the different factors they can control in the situation.
  • Build Healthy Child-Parent Relationship: A healthy child-parent relation is an important protective factor that predicts the long-term effect of divorce on children. The surveys show that parent-child relation tends to deteriorate after divorce, especially relations with father. Steps such as spending quality one on one time with the parent, affirming their strengths, accepting ambivalent feelings etc. can help the relationship. Also, incorporate genuine expressions of appreciation and encouragement for one another. Another social effect of divorce on children occurs when parents rush into a relationship immediately after the divorce. Most children might encounter an enormous sense of loss and a fear of being replaced by the new partner. The issue is compounded when the new partner also has children.

Divorce is a tough time for everyone involved. Children require extra support and love in such a situation. Parents going through a divorce have to be extra attentive toward them, in spite of the divorce is a hard situation for them too. There are facilities such as counselling and intervention that can help make the situation easier to handle for both parents and children.

Also Read: Mental Illness in Children

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