The Negative Effects of Divorce on Children

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Divorce finds its reflection on many parts of life. But the negative effects of it is not limited by harm to the general social well-being. Children in the family, with their young minds, they perceive divorce considerably harder than adults. Even when parents are in tense relations and a child is always present during their quarrels, no kid ever wants his or her parents to start living apart. Usually it involves long custody trials and a child ends up living with one parent and optionally seeing the other one on rare occasions. Such changes present tremendous stress to a child. Married couples should take it into consideration before contemplating a divorce.

In order to understand the feelings of a child who lives in a family which goes through a divorce, it is crucial to conduct a detailed analysis of this phenomenon. United Nations Statistics Division, being concerned about the social impacts of divorce and giving a global insight to it, presents such a definition for this notion: “final legal dissolution of a marriage, that is, that separation of husband and wife which confers on the parties the right to remarriage under civil, religious and/or other provisions, according to the laws of each country” (Principles and Recommendations for a Vital Statistics System: Revision 2 11). From the psychological point of view divorce is considered to have several stages or layers, thus being a multilateral and complicated notion. This feature can be explained by the fact that divorce is not limited by courthouse sessions only, it stretches far beyond that and can be called a process rather that an event. D. Wayne Matthews conducted a research dedicated to the long-term effects of divorce on children. The expert offers such a list of divorce stages set in chronological sequence: emotional (when a couple or one of the spouses contemplates such a step feeling that negative aspects of the marriage begin to prevail over the positive ones), legal (when a couple goes through termination of their marriage with the help of the state, involving preparation, agreement and signing of the relevant documents), co-parental (dealing with custody terms established after the previous stage including the ability of joint custody, which seems to be less traumatic for a child as he or she spends equal amounts of time with both parents), community (a process of “dividing” mutual  friends and social circles and moving to other residential areas) and finally psychic (adjusting to the feeling and practical aspects of living out of marriage). The scientist claims that the duration of these stages can be different depending on the couple involved, and sometimes not all of the stages are passed through during a divorce. He mentions, however, that children experience all of the stages together with their parents. Absence of divorce and a simple splitting up is not much better, for the process includes the same stages apart from those directly connected with trial and possible custodial processes. The child suffers in the same way because of parental quarrels. Probably, the only aspect when such a solution is better is that the child is more likely to save friendly relations with both parents. Thus, the significance of those stages should not be underestimated for analyzing the emotional baggage left with children in the aftermath of the divorce.

Similar classification of divorce stages, although more devoted to its psychological components from a therapeutic point of view, is given by Kathleen O’Connor Corcoran. The scientist delimits such of them as disillusionment of one party, expressing dissatisfactions, deciding to divorce, acting on decision, growing acceptance and new beginnings. She also presents time frames of each stage. The findings of this author are crucial due to the fact that she also investigates the typical reactions of children to divorce. According to her, they include denial, abandonment, preoccupation with information, anger and hostility, depression, immaturity or hyper maturity, preoccupation with reconciliation, blame and guilt and acting out. O’Connor Corcoran gives a detailed description of behavioral and coping patterns of children of different ages. Her findings reveal how deep and multilateral the negative impact of divorce on children may be.

After analyzing the divorce stages, Matthews presents certain criteria that may become risk factors for children in split marriages. They include gender, age, socio-economic status, degree of child’s involvement into marital conflict, relationship with parents prior to divorce, inability to split parental roles, continuation of the conflict, acceptance of loss of non-custodial parent. Such a classification once again proves the fact that there are a lot of factors contributing to the emotional perception of divorce by children. At the same way, it emphasizes a great role of parents in diminishing the negative consequences of their critical marital conflict on their offspring. Matthews insists some of them can be eliminated with a little collaboration from the parents’ side. For example, trying not to fight in front of the children can considerably reduce kid’s feeling of “confusion, frustration, anger and loyalty conflicts”. These findings reveal to what extent parents can facilitate the relief from a painful process of splitting up for their children.

Generally the psychologists agree that effects of divorce on children can be divided into short-term and long-term. Short-term effects include immediate feeling of loneliness and forsakenness connected with the fact that parents tend to pay less attention to children because of being focused on the forthcoming or just settled divorce. A child suffers emotionally, self-concept becomes a subject of negative alternation and stress leads to decline of the discipline and educational accomplishments as well as to considerable deterioration of social relations and ability to establish contact with the others. Some scientists even argue that short-term effects have more negative consequences on the emotional life of children. Thus, Alan Mozes cites the outcomes of the research published in Journal of Marriage and Family revealing that “the demise of a marriage is most harmful to a child's mental health before a parental split, rather than after”. Findings show that unstable marriage which is still in power already causes children to feel anxious, depressed and reveal signs of anti-social behavior. This idea is supported by Kathleen O’Connor Corcoran who maintains that children with obvious signs of depression and conduct disorders also tend to display predisposition to these problems prior to divorce because of witnessing parental pre-divorce conflict. Evans and Kelley who explored the effects of divorce on educational accomplishments of a child also claim that it is not the ending of marriage itself, but “pre-existing adverse characteristics of the family of origin that causes both divorce and educational difficulties”. O’Connor Corcoran also states that living with a custodial parent might oblige a child with overwhelming responsibility of hearing out the complaints of this parent about the other one. Adults, trying to find consolation by sharing their negative feedback with children, often do not realize that they put a child in a very difficult situation, as the other parent is likely to take part in upbringing or at least have some contact with the child.  Constance R. Ahrons refers to this phenomenon as to “loyalty conflict”, emerging of which reveals low coping and adjusting skills of the parents, and can ultimately describe them as morally irresponsible. In this case it is better to explain children that the marriage ended because it simply did not work out due to some differences between the parental couple and not to instill the feeling that the one who is not custodial is the one who caused all the conflicts and the eventual break-up.

However, short-time effects cannot even be compared to the long-term ones. For example, Ahrons devoted her research to observation of life of adults twenty years after they experienced a parental divorce. The findings of this longitudinal research show that “the parental subsystem continues to impact the binuclear family 20 years after marital disruption” (53). As for the findings of Matthews, they are based on the previously conducted researches and reveal that “problematic parent-children relations associated with divorce persist throughout the life course”. This statement, which has already become a maxim in the scientific world, is the one that, probably, may illustrate the whole scope of negative effects of divorce on children in the fullest measure: any ended marriage, no matter whether splitting up was calm or traumatically difficult, leaves its permanent traces on children living in the family. Formulated by Amato and Booth in 1996, it was widely resorted to earlier and continues to be topical nowadays. It is supported by other authors (namely Furstenberg and Teitler) who are rather pessimistic, yet realistic in asserting that “children from disrupted families are significantly more likely to express discontent with their lives as measured by an index of life satisfaction” (Matthews 3). It is common knowledge that a happy family is one of the values identified as such giving a sense of fulfillment it life. If this life experienced a parental divorce, rates of life satisfaction index are unlikely to be very high.

A very important “sleeper effect” is also referred to. It is explained that this effect presupposes subconscious denial of the situation by a child as a part of psychological coping mechanism following the immediate incident of divorce. The danger of this phenomenon is revealed by the fact that the very child as an adult person will inevitably face the emotions he or she tried to suppress, and the effects of it might be rather disastrous. The trauma of the divorce tends to come to light sooner or later. In the long run this escapist attitude will still produce the feeling of sorrow over the childhood marred by such unhappy experience and then even signs of a moderate clinic depression might be visible (Matthews 4). Grown up children who saw their parents split tend to blame the latter arguing that the emerging conflicts could be eliminated prior to giving birth to the new generation. This tendency clearly illustrates the transition from short-lasting effects to the long-lasting ones, as it is common knowledge that at the initial stages of parental break-up children of any age are inclined to blame themselves for conflicts in the family, and through the experience of their own adult life the attitude changes into accusing the parents. Matthews mentions, that although many of the youngsters assert themselves as independent and morally strong as a result of such experience, researches show general deterioration of the quality of their lives, including negative effects of divorce both on physical and mental health. One of the most long-lasting effects is multiple difficulties and fears connected with the growth of one’s own families inherent for children inheriting the history of unhappy marriage. Ahrons claims that when a divorced couple remains in tense relations with each other, “it is likely to affect extended relationships in the child’s kinship system” (64). With such premises, the likelihood of a normal marital life of an adult person decreases significantly. The most extreme outcomes of underwent parental divorce is severely dysfunctional life caused by a serious shift in priorities and values.

Diminishing of negative effects which parental divorce executes on children is a possible task. The first issue to consider is that sometimes a decision to get a divorce is too hasty and dictated by overwhelming emotions. Parents often do not realize there are other ways of dealing with their marital crisis, and in some cases all they need is a kind of professional aid, may it even be legal. Such a practice was introduced in Great Britain last year. The Guardian reports, divorcing couples will have to go through mandatory marriage mediation before applying straight to the court. This decision is mostly dictated by economical reasons implying that the courts are overloaded with solving minor marital conflicts. But the psychological aspect of it also cannot be underestimated. Explanation of this state measure given by the minister of justice Jonathan Djanogly implies that mediation can become “a quicker, cheaper and more amicable alternative, particularly where children are concerned”. The minister also argued that, according to the experience of a lot of people, divorce process is ususally long, tiresome and stressful, and, thus, in general not worth it. Thus, divorce prevention seems to be one of the effective ways to avoid all the possible negative impacts of this traumatic procedure both on the adults and children.

Other important steps of adults apart from not making global decisions in a hasty way can be generally united by the idea mentioned above, in the section of this paper dedicated to risk-factors of marriage termination: parents themselves can considerably diminish the negative effects of their divorce on their children. One of the typical errors of a custodial parent is mentioned above and described as such causing a loyalty conflict. If parents really want to help their children, they should at least not burden them with their angry and offensive perspective on the ex-spouses. In addition, Matthews tries to soothe parents by claiming that they should not expect that children will inevitably experience all the negative consequences of divorce mentioned by him. However, they can surely influence the intensity of manifestations of these effects by rather simple attitudes of “education, nurturing, good communication and lots of love”. Parent should understand that by no means should their children feel abandoned. Young minds are more vulnerable for stresses of this kind, and we all know how much a balanced and happy childhood means for overall life accomplishments of an adult. Besides, active participation in the child’s coping with the situation may become a significant healing factor for parents themselves. Ahrons with her research based on long-term observations agrees with these prescriptions and claims that cooperative and supporting parents become a major factor for the opportunity of their children to build emotionally healthy families in the future. These measures are identified by the researcher as parental efforts as opposed to outside help. Clarifying the latter, Matthews gives an example of effective intervention programs for children. Thus, in order for divorce not to become a life-long trauma for a young person, caring parents should find solutions which will fit the emotional demands of their child in the best way.

Categorical statement that divorce is a completely negative event would be unreasonable. Viewpoint of those who support the idea of divorce is at least worth mentioning. It would be true to assert that if a child is exposed to violent fights and constant conflicts between the parents, termination of such family relations does not seem to be so vicious. The child might actually benefit from being taken away from such an unhealthy surrounding, for everyone deserves a happy childhood. But this viewpoint must be based on the idea that the priority for harmonized development of a young person is the feeling of family integrity and security. If new marriages or single parenting can provide that, divorce might be assessed as a right step. Neuman and Romanowski maintain that new family structures should not be regarded as inferior ones and that learning to acknowledge the positive lessons of divorce is as important as communicating with children in order for the lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, emotionally healthy living conditions cannot be always guaranteed by splitting up. In this regard Alan Mozes notes, supported by the researches, that “the common notion that parents should stay together for the sake of their kids is a fallacy that can do more harm to children than good”. It is crucial not to confuse between “the sake of children” and “one’s own sake”. When divorce is justifiable, it should not be feared. Neuman and Romanowski support this idea by stating that “many studies have determined that children living in high-conflict but “intact” families grow up with more problems than children from low-conflict, divorced families”. In the end, the decision relies upon parents as for what results of what researches should be taken into consideration in their specific situation.

Short-term or long-term, all scientists agree that children do experience some problems following the divorce of their parents. Most of them are also unanimous that the majority of these effects tend to reflect on the well-being of children in a negative way. It is also important to mention that pre-divorce atmosphere in the family accounts for a large share of psychological problems of children in the aftermath of divorce. However, the most severe long-term consequences of a divorce include lingering psychological difficulties and complete inability to build stable relationships in the future, especially when a child was a witness to serious parental conflicts. These consequences regard lower self-concept and a set of complicated emotions as well as difficulties emerging in social life. Researches reveal even deteriorating impact of divorce on physical well-being of a child in a long perspective. Several psychological stages of divorce and its perception by children can be delimited, and all of them are associated with strong negative feelings. The main task of parents is not to worsen the situation putting a child on the verge of the loyalty conflict. Other measures designed for parents to help their children cope with their divorce include careful planning of this important step, and in the case of venturing for marriage termination adults must display as much attention and affection as possible. Finally, positive effects of divorce are viewed as a relative category and can be achieved only by substantial mutual efforts.

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