The Effects of Divorce on Children
To appreciate the effects of divorce on children, a person must appreciate what divorce does to adults. In her book, Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, Abigail Trafford describes divorce as a "savage emotional journey," where a person ricochets between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. Far more is involved than the legal end of a marriage. Divorce upends the established order of family, friends, finances, work, and in some cases health and well being. Divorce sends shrapnel in every direction. In truth, divorce is a death, and neither spouse who made a good faith effort to make the marriage work buries it without pain and suffering. While many divorce books portray life after divorce as the occasion of enlightening self-discovery and re-creation, for many, particularly women with children, life after a divorce takes on the characteristics of forced march across very barren terrain. While people do go on and rebuild their lives in rewarding ways after a divorce, divorce makes no one a winner.
For obvious reasons, divorce traumatizes children. They are often concerned with their own security, not with their parent’s happiness.
An adult elects to end a marriage; a child has that decision thrust upon him or her. The parents acts; the child reacts. The philosophical questions of choice, which reward human experience for adult who makes them freely, are meaningless for a child who sees his or her idea of order collapse when his or her parents separate.
A child whose parents divorce may feel sucked into a vortex of loneliness, guilt and fear. When one parent leaves, he or she may fear the other one will follow. Even when both parents reassure him or her of their love, the child may be tormented by the belief that he or she caused the break. Almost always, children worry about what is going to happen to them. From the point of view of a youngster, that fear is quite reasonable.
Children react in different ways with the onset of divorce. Some will be extremely sad and show signs of depression and sleeplessness. Anxiety levels peak as they feel they are going to be abandoned or rejected by one or even both parents. Some divorce situations may make the child feel lonely. This may be due to a long absence of one of the parents.
Divorce deranges the idea of order for a child. This is why broken promises -- something as small as going to a baseball game -- take on a magnitude far beyond its actual significance.
No matter what the situation, the child will be affected in some way by a divorce. Some children may become psychologically scarred from the experience, and still other children may not be affected emotionally at all. Much depends on how well the parents are able to handle the situation.
Uncontrollable Bad Effects
Very few people going into a divorce for the first time can anticipate how a marital breakdown deranges their lives. Like shrapnel, the blast hits the innocent bystanders as readily as it does the main participants.
In a divorce, money, or the lack of it, almost always becomes a problem. Child support payments, alimony and financial assistance place a monetary strain on one or both parents, which directly affects the children. It seldom works any other way. Income that once supported one household now supports two. This ignores the legal costs, and all of the unforeseen costs of one spouse settling up that second household. Sometimes it is very hard at the outset to know in advance how bleak the financial picture will be after the divorce, but a divorcing couple should brace for the worst.
Sometimes the marital home must be sold as part of the property settlement. In some instances, one of the parents may have to relocate. This brings with it a new set of problems; children having to adjust to a new school, friends, and environment.
The Loss of Friends
Few divorcing couples ever anticipate the loss of friends in the wake of a marital breakup. While the wife may retain her friends, and the husband his friends, the friends the couple made together as a married couple often drift away. Sometimes people don’t want to take sides, but often people drift away because divorce can be very threatening, particularly when a couple senses problems in their own home.
The Loss of FamilyFamily structure is very important. Divorce requires the family to restructure, and this can take a toll on in-laws and grandparents. Both parents must continue to play an important role in the life of their child, but family beyond the parents can be disrupted by divorce. It is generally a good idea that the parents design a thought out parenting plan in order to keep some predictability in the family structure. This is good for the sake of the child. Divorce does not have to mean the end of a family.
It is also good for the children to keep close ties with other relatives. Even if the parent does not get along with the extended family, children need these people in their lives.
Birthdays and Holidays
For parents and their children, holidays and birthdays after a divorce can be very difficult. That first birthday, that first Christmas, that first anything spent without both parents is traumatic. As each year passes, the family feels more comfortable with new environments and new ways to celebrate, but birthdays and holidays and other special days are difficult, particularly in the beginning.
Stepparenting, stepchildren and stepfamilies have reshaped the contour lines of American family law and American life. Many divorced people marry again and have additional children, natural or stepchildren, but most states do not consider stepchildren to be "’children of a subsequent marriage’" in support guidelines.
Under common law, a stepparent has no financial duty to support a stepchild during a marriage to that child’s natural parent. However, twenty states have statutes requiring a stepparent to support stepchildren, but no jurisdiction imposes a duty on a stepparent to support a stepchild when the stepparent and stepchild no longer live as a family.
Stepfamilies become very complicated. The number of children, their ages, the rapport with the stepparent are very important factors to consider when dealing with the structure of a stepfamily.
In spite of the fact that stepfamilies are very complex and difficult, the blended family, as stepfamilies are sometime called, can be a very strong family unit. Everyone involved must have time to adjust to the new way the family operates. Each stepfamily member must also look at things from the other stepfamily member’s point of view. A new stepfamily member cannot just jump into a new family and take charge. The new family must take things very slowly, and each family member must carefully think things out before they act.
For sure, some marriages must and should end. Domestic violence and extreme conflict are reasons to end a marriage. But the truth is most marriages do not fall in this category. People contemplating divorce should make certain that it is a course of last resort. They may find happiness and a new beginning after the divorce; divorce itself makes no one happy. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, in a divorce, the winner takes nothing.
Common Questions and Answers
Q. What is the single most important factor in how a child reacts to divorce?
A. How a parent handles the divorce. Parents teach by example, and child picks up on cues the parent gives.
Q. What is it about divorce, which ends a unhappy marriage, that makes it so difficult?
A. Psychologists rate divorce as one of the most stressful events in life, just below the death of a spouse. Divorce is like getting into a lifeboat. For sure, the lifeboat offers the chance of escape from a terrible situation, but abandoning ship holds little appeal because of the enormous uncertainties. The same is true for divorce. From a child’s point of view, divorce is enormously dislocating because he or she lacks the life experience to even envision possible good outcomes. A divorcing parent, in addition to all his or her problems, must support the child in what may be the most difficult experience in his or her young life. This is a tough set of marching orders.
Useful Online Tools
Resources & Tools
PARENTS FOR LIFE -- Divorcing parents must remember that although they are no longer spouses, they remain parents for life.
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How to Win Child Custody
Parent's Ability and Willingness to Cooperate: The Friendly Parent Doctrine, As a Most Important Factor in Recent Child Custody Cases
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