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It is well known that divorce impacts children greatly in the short term. A lesser-known fact is that the consequences of divorce ripple through time. In fact, divorce is a precursor to a host of issues experienced in adolescence and well into adulthood. As a child of divorce myself, I have become aware of how the events of my childhood have shaped my adulthood.
The likelihood a child will experience separating parents increases with age is influenced by their ethnic background, if they require special care needs, are living in poverty, or live in rural areas. Kids of divorced parents are also increasingly likely to suffer from economic hardship, a direct result of the financial impact of divorce. Overall it is estimated that 40% of children will experience parental divorce, and half of all children will reside in a single-parent home (usually with the mother) at some point in their lifetime.
From my earliest childhood memories, I can remember being ferried between parents. I was with my mother during the week and on the weekends I would visit my paternal grandmother’s house. Every other weekend my father would then drive down to visit me and my sister, a situation that is so common that most people don’t even think twice about it.
Economic effects on children after divorce
The most obvious change seen among divorcing families is the sudden change in family finances. Financial instability plays a key role in the long-term effects of divorce on children. Failure to obtain financial support from the absent parent (most usually the father) directly impacts the child’s academic success and behavior.
In fact, children of divorce are more likely to have no academic degrees beyond the minimum at age 33, compared to adults at the same age whose parents never separated. Lack of qualifications can greatly impact their lifetime economic success and status. Men are twice as likely to be unemployed in their early thirties if from a divorced home. Women originating from a divorced home will earn less, are more likely to rely on welfare or be in public housing. This can also be compounded by the fact that young women from divorced homes are more likely to become pregnant earlier in life.
During my childhood, I can remember a stark difference between the lifestyle my mother (the custodial parent) and my father lived. At my mother’s house, we were often wearing second-hand clothes, visiting food banks, and at times had the electricity or water shut off. My father had 3 vehicles and lived in a house with a pool. He would often complain about the clothes we wore to visit him or the fact we looked so skinny because we also suffered from physical neglect. Yet he begrudged the monthly child maintenance check because in his mind he was “paying her.”
Psychological effects of divorce on children’s mental health
The mental health repercussions of divorce impact not only the divorcing parents but also any children involved. Sadly these psychological effects are not only experienced during the divorce proceedings, but well into adulthood. In fact, studies have shown adverse psychological behaviors such as high anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior can continue well past the age of 33.
These effects can usually be seen when a child of divorce exhibits a number of psychological problems including:
- difficulty handling anger
- gender identity confusion
- low self-confidence
- feelings of worthlessness
- feeling a lack of control
- risky behavior
- difficulty in relationships
Divorce and parental conflict result in lower levels of psychological well-being during childhood and well into adulthood. I know for myself it has lead to trust issues, and the assumption that people are only in your life while it suits them, a thought that has been in the back of my mind since I was a child, and still haunts me as an adult. From a young age, I craved a happy whole family, even if I had to make it myself. Yet even in the happiest moments, I am always afraid it could easily end. It leads to moments of savoring the happy times, but it is a type of anxiety born from a broken family.
Academic deterioration due to divorce
Children from a broken home show a marked decrease in language and academic stimulation, encouragement of social maturity, as well as a loss of parental pride, affect, and warmth. Some academic deterioration is due to a lack of parental involvement. Usually, the quality of parenting diminishes after divorce due to increased stress on the single custodial parent. In these highly strained homes, there are usually less toys and games.
Many children will exhibit a diminished learning capacity and poor behavior in school. In adolescence, this can escalate to drug use, absences, dropping out, expulsion, and lack of college attainment. Later in life, these children are also more likely to exhibit increased involvement in criminal activities, abuse, neglect, and substance abuse themselves.
In my personal experience, I have seen a lot of this play out, particularly with my sister. We both lived in the same household, we both experienced the same upbringing, but we both came out very different people. I am lucky in the fact that I have some sort of ingrained stubbornness to not let my past define me. It has allowed me to push beyond the norms and attain a degree as an adult even though only 11% of children of divorce will obtain one. In retrospect, I believe it is a combination of my own ambition and my father’s sternness regarding academic performance.
Effects of divorce on children’s physical health
Children of divorce often exhibit stunted physical health and longevity. This is usually due to the financial constraints of the custodial parent, as well as the increased levels of stress from parental fighting and other negative consequences of divorce.
Adolescents and young adults of divorce may place less importance on marriage and stability before entering into sexual relationships. Therefore, they are more likely to engage in physical relationships at an earlier age, on a more casual basis, and have an increased likelihood to become teenage parents or contract STIs.
Finally, the increased levels of stress, lack of resources, and unstable mental health in divorced parents can oftentimes lead to them lashing out. This can be expressed as verbal or physical abuse to children in the home. When children experience both parental divorce and child abuse, they are more likely to end up with psychiatric disorders, conduct disorders, or suicide attempts.
As I mentioned earlier, as children we were often considered to be on the skinny side, and several times I was diagnosed with anemia from a poor diet. The effects of living on a poverty diet eventually lead to other problems after puberty. In adulthood, I had to spend a considerable amount of time learning how to eat a healthy diet, and cook well-rounded meals for my own children.
Effects of divorce on children’s relationships with their families in the long term
A lack of cooperation and increased hostility between you and your ex can lead to poor psychological outcomes among your children. Parental conflict is a direct stressor of children that creates feelings of emotional insecurity and interferes with their attachment to their parents. This creates a lifelong tension throughout childhood, adulthood, and may even influence your relationship with your children. This chronic strain on both the divorced parents and their children will pervade every family celebration, gathering, holiday, and get-together.
Generally, divorce leads to a decline in the frequency and quality of time the father spends with the child. The statistics are grim. Nearly 50% of children report not seeing their non-resident father in the past year and by adolescence, fewer than half of children living with divorced mothers have seen their father in more than a year. Additionally, relationships between the child and the paternal grandparents can become strained or non-existent as the child no longer sees the father.
My parents were at war with each other for as long as I can remember. My father painted my mother as some lazy do-nothing who just wanted his money. He never acknowledged or appreciated how much work it took to raise us alone.
My mother resented my father for the ways he had hurt her, constantly cursed his name, and claimed he didn’t care about us, just about his paycheck.
In the end, it destroyed my relationships with both of them because they were so busy fighting each other they didn’t have much time for us. As the child, I regret that my relationship with my father never had a chance and I feel sorry for my mother and the pain she had to endure alone. But the warzone they created made it impossible to develop a relationship with either of them.
Effects of divorce on children’s future relationships
In general children of divorce are likely to have personality traits that effect their relationships with others in the long run, as they:
- have hindered social skills,
- maintain fewer friendships and other attachments,
- exhibit hostility toward adults,
- fear rejection,
- suffer from anxiety,
- have a lowered ability to handle conflict or become conflict avoidant,
- and are aggressive.
Further, divorce impacts their own marital and relationship stability in adulthood. They may develop compensatory behaviors and double the effort in keeping a broken marriage together, for fear of ending up divorced themselves. On the other hand, many adult children of divorced parents begin to view marriage in a negative light, resulting in less permanent commitment to their romantic partners and an increase in casual cohabitation-type relationships.
Young women may experience higher levels of anxiety and lower relationships satisfaction leading to a constant need for love and attention while fearing abandonment. Young men with absent fathers may lack a male role model and show an increase in both hostile and “rescuer” type behavior to women they are attracted to. The lack of trust and fear of rejection makes it hard for either to find a satisfactory and meaningful connection.
Individuals whose parents were divorced are 39% more likely to marry another child of divorce. These couples are then twice as likely to divorce themselves compared to couples from non-divorced parents. Additionally, those marriages are likely to suffer from:
- conflicts over money,
- and drinking or drug use.
The consequences of parental divorce not only affect the childhood of the individual, but can replay and influence them throughout their life. Sadly the ripples of divorce can create an intergenerational effect whereby children of divorce are more likely to produce children who divorce.
Can divorce benefit children?
In a few extreme circumstances, divorce can be beneficial to children in the long term. Generally, this is when the marriage is highly volatile, with high levels of parental conflict, physical, emotional, or substance abuse, which themselves have detrimental effects on children in the long run. In a small number of cases, it allows mothers to start a career, increase their social lives, and thus their fulfilment and happiness if they were in a highly abusive or controlling relationship.
Helping children cope with divorce
Divorce creates a considerable amount of stress and damage to all parties involved. There is a bit of variance in the overall impact on each individual based on their resilience. Some children of divorce will come out relatively unscathed, while others may enter a lifelong downward spiral.
Each situation is unique with other mitigating factors contributing to the long-term effects of divorce on children. One of the most important factors in mitigating the damage from a divorce is limiting the amount of parental conflict between parents. The quality of parental function is one of the best predictors of children’s behavior and well-being. So if you are the custodial parent, getting the support you need can go a long way to mitigating the damage to your children during a divorce. Equally, maintaining a good quality parent-child relationship is imperative to develop well-adjusted young adults.
Additional factors that will help your children adjust to divorce include:
- discussing active coping skills,
- providing social support,
- therapeutic intervention when required,
- joint physical custody where possible,
- and programs aimed at helping divorced parents cope with parental conflict.
If you find yourself facing divorce and you are worried about the effect it will have on your children, then I hope this next part comes as some comfort. Try to keep in mind that your attitude and their quality of life are bigger driving factors in your child’s future than a legal piece of paper. Here is a list of dos and don’ts to help you mitigate the damage as much as possible:
- Do your best to limit parental conflict by remaining cordial and cooperative with the absent parent. I know they may have hurt you deeply, but in the long run, this isn’t about your romantic relationship. The relationship of your child and their other parent should never be influenced by your past with them.
- Don’t badmouth the other parent. No matter how lazy they are. No matter how many times they don’t show up for visitation…or pay child maintenance…or forget a birthday. Your child will see these things on their own, and you should keep your opinions on it neutral where possible.
- Take time each day to check on your child’s schoolwork. I know it can be hard when you already feel like you are doing the job of 6 people. But sitting with them for 5-10 minutes focused on how they are doing academically can really show them how important it is and how proud you are of them.
- Don’t ever blame your child or allow them to blame themselves for the end of your relationship. Try to explain that sometimes no matter how hard we try things just don’t work out. Relationships can not be saved by only one side, and it takes 2 people willing to work really hard to make them successful. Explain how you will always be a family, and they will always have their parent, regardless of what your relationships status is.
In summary, children of divorce are more likely to suffer from broken relationships, unhealthy interpersonal dealings, and weakened parent-child relationships. They will receive less emotional support, financial assistance, and practical help from their thinly stretched parents.
Ultimately this leads to psychological effects, academic deterioration, and a perpetuating cycle of divorce through the generations. The damage of divorce doesn’t come from the divorce process itself, but from the parental conflict, financial instability, and lack of quality parenting that results from divorce. With a bit of foresight and intervention, you can put strategies in place to minimize the long-term effects of divorce on your children.