The statistics for divorce in the 1990s suggest that nearly sixty percent of marriages end in divorce. Given this startling figure, the assumption can be made that many children will experience some effects caused by the life-changing event called divorce. What is it exactly about divorce that causes negative consequences for these children? In what ways will these children be effected? Will these effects show outwardly? I will attempt to uncover some of the complexities surrounding these psychological questions in the following text. The unsettling fact is: young children of divorced parents face great psychological challenges due to the environmental conditions and changes associated with divorce (Wolchik and Karoly 45).
Parental conflict appears to have a pronounced effect on the coping efforts of children. The intense anxiety and anger between some parents in the early stages of divorce is real. Often times parents allow their children to get in the middle of fierce verbal confrontation between them. Berating the other parent in front of the child is another way of placing the child in an unfair position, which in essence is expecting the child to choose between the parents. A less tangible example of parental-conflict is the way in which the two opposite genders relate to one another in the presence of children. Mothers may treat fathers as if they are less important and undeserving of respect, just as the opposite can apply. Any form of parental conflict, no matter to what degree, lends to a difficult adjustment period for children involved (Jekielek 1-3).
The deterioration in parent-child relationships after divorce is another leading cause in psychological maladjustment for children. With a divorce comes a parenting plan of some kind. A child may experience shared custody between both parents or custody by one parent with visitation by the other parent. Variations of these plans can be included or added at different times in the childs life depending on special circumstances. More often than not, the mother is awarded custody of the children. The absence of the father on a full time level is detrimental to the healthy development of the children. In the case that the father is awarded custody of the children, the opposite applies as well. Studies have shown that a deterioration in custodial parent-child relationships may frequently occur in the first year or two following divorce (Wolchik and Karoly 56-59).
Chronic disorganization and inconsistent parenting are contributing factors to the psychological adaptation of children. Parents may differ in opinion when it comes to child rearing. Consistency is the key to helping children adapt quickly with as few psychologically traumatic scars as possible. The consistency should be practiced in every aspect of the childs life including: new stages of development (eating and drinking adult foods, potty training, sleeping in their own bed), discipline, house rules (showing respect towards others, sharing, eating at the dinner table), and routines (wake up and bed times, meal times, play times). Because parents may have different ideas of what consistency means and how children should be raised, it is often a difficult task for the custodial parent to help encourage positive and progressive development for the children.
The correlation between divorce and a drop in standards of living for female-headed families has been documented in several studies. The association between divorce and financial difficulties in these households may negatively impact childrens adjustment periods. Felner and Terre (1987) conclude, Economic deprivation accompanying divorce may influence the childs adjustment not only directly, by decreasing the level of material resources available to the child, but also less directly by leading to additional alterations such as in mother-child interaction patterns, daily routines, or the quality and/or location of the childs domicile or through contributing to the stress experienced by the custodial parent (qtd. in Furstenberg 4).
If divorce is so painful, why do some children flourish academically? Why do others sound mature and logical when explaining their family situation? Why do others carry on as if nothing has happened? The reactions a child exhibits will depend on the nature of the child (ego strength and capacity to mobilize resources), as well as his or her age and the relationship of the parents and child before, during, and after the divorce. Some of the initial reactions to divorce are similar to the reactions to the death of a loved one. It can be expected that a child going through such a traumatic event as divorce will experience a wide spectrum of emotions: sadness or depression, denial, embarrassment, anger, guilt, concern about being cared for, regression, maturity, and physical symptoms (Diamond 22-28).
Listed by age group are some of the more common post-divorce symptoms experienced by children. Preschool children are more likely to blame themselves and to experience nightmares, enuresis, and eating disturbances. Early-school age children have academic problems, withdrawal and depression. Older school age children are more likely to blame one parent for the divorce and feel intense anger at one or both parents. Adolescents experience the most intense anger and also exhibit problems with developmental issues of independence and interpersonal relationships (Wolchik and Karoly 235-236).
The adjustment period for children experiencing divorce is traumatic. Parental conflict is generally high and tense in the beginning stages, which gives children a sense of insecurity. Change occurring in the parent-child relationship is almost always prevalent leading children to worry about who will take care of them. Disorganization and inconsistency in parenting styles leaves children in a state of confusion. Children dont know what behavior is acceptable at moms vs. dads place of residence. The decrease in income level can contribute to anxiety, frustration, and even embarrassment for children. Due to all these changes, it is reasonable to hypothesize that environmental condition and change associated with the post divorce adjustment period are mediated both by the different experiences that occur and by different responses to these experiences.
Interview of : Caleb, age seven
My parents arent actually divorced yet. But theyre getting one soon. They stopped living together when I was one and a half, and my Dad moved next door. Then, when I was five, he moved to Chicago, and that hurt my feelings because I realized he was really leaving and I wouldnt be able to see him every day. My fathers an artist, and when he lived next door to us in New York, I used to go to his studio every day and watch him when he was welding. I had my own goggles and tools, and we would spend many an hour together. I remember when I first heard the bad news that he was moving away, because I almost flipped my lid. My father said he would be divorcing my Mom but that he wouldnt be divorcing me and wed still see each other a lotbut not as often. I started crying then and there, and ever since then Ive been hoping every single second that hed move back to New York and wed all live together again. I dont cry much anymore because I hold it back, but I feel sad all the same.
I get to visit my father quite often. And Shaun. Hes my collie. My cat lives in New York with me and Mom. Whenever I talk with Daddy on the phone I can hear Shaun barking in the background. The hardest thing for me about visiting my father is when I have to leave, and that makes me feel badand madinside. I still wish I could see him every day like I did when I was little. Its hard to live with just one person, because you dont have enough company, though my Mom has lots of great baby-sitters and that helps a little. Patrick Kilpatrick is one of my sitters, and its comforting for me to have another guy around to do stuff withlike he takes me for rides on his bike and we play baseball together. We can do a lot more daredevil activities than I could ever do with my Mom. Patrick has never met my father, but sometimes we talk about him. He encourages me to talk about anything thats troubling me and reminds me I have a lot to be grateful forlike how great Mommy is and how I can visit my father whenever its possible.
I hope my Mom never gets remarried because I just wouldnt like anybody else to try and take the place of my Dad. But sometimes when shes dating one man a lot and hes nice to me, I cant help wishing he was my Daddy. I told her that if she did ever want a husband, I have a list of choices and it would be nice if she could pick someone who could help me play with my computer. I wouldnt mind if my Daddy got remarried because maybe theyd have another kid and to tell you the truth I would really like to have a younger brother. But I wouldnt want my Mom to have a baby because it would live with us and then Id have to share all my toys. Still, what I really really really want, deep down, is that my Dad doesnt get remarried and my Mom doesnt, either. What Im just hoping and hoping more than anything is that theyll get back together again (Krementz 71-72).
Diamond, Susan. Helping Children of Divorce. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.
Furstenberg, Frank F. Children and family change: Discourse between social scientists and the media. Contemporary Sociology. Jan 1999. 9pp. Online. umi Proquest direct. 24 May 1999.
Jekielek, Susan M. Parental conflict, marital disruption and childrens emotional well-being. Social Forces. Mar 1998. 16pp. Online. umi Proquest direct. 24 May 1999.
Krementz, Jill. How It Feels When Parents Divorce. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Wolchik, Sharlene A., and Paul Karoly. Children of Divorce Empirical Perspectives on Adjustment. New York: Gardner Press, 1988.