CHILDREN AND DIVORCE
Divorce has become the alternative to an unhappy marriage for so many Americans in today’s society. Many times the life in the family has become so unbearable that divorce seems to be the only answer. However, married couples are often not the only ones who feel the effects of a parental separation. Some forty percent of all children will experience a parental separation or divorce before reaching adulthood (Amato 1269). Children of divorce experience the consequences of divorce and develop different coping strategies, which has brought up studies and other tools useful in helping deal with society’s divorce-stricken youth.
Every year, over one million children are involved in new divorce cases (Walter, et al. 79). It is estimated today that nearly half of all first-time marriages will fizzle out. In the mid nineteen hundreds, only about five percent of all marriages ended in divorce (Amato 1269). Divorce in the family marks the beginning of an uncertain future for children (Walter, et al. 74).
In the nineteen-eighties, the effects of divorce on children declined from the earlier decades. Researchers say that this is most likely due to the fact that divorce has become, in so many ways, much more socially acceptable. Research would also comment that parents seem to be working harder to lessen the impact of the divorce on their offspring (Amato 1278). However, the divorce experience effects even the healthiest children in some way (Berger 115).
In many cases, the direct behavior of the parents towards their children has a greater impact on behavior than the divorce itself. The attitudes of the parents can play a crucial factor. Studies show that many "divorced parents invest less time, are less supportive, have fewer rules, give harsher discipline, provide less supervision, and engage in more conflict with their children"(Amato 1279). The quality of parental functions is a key factor in predicting the well-being and behavior of their offspring (Amato 1280). Research shows, however, that many parents are not as emotionally or physically available as they’d like to be during the divorce process (Lewis 33). Overall, children are better off in most situations if their parents, being involved in a high-conflict relationship, divorce rather than remain unhappily married (Amato 1278).
Most of the damage that children experience emotionally is not caused by the separation or divorce, but rather by stress leading to split-up, the divided family, and the events to follow. Children’s needs vary due to their own family position and personal experiences prior to, during and after the divorce (Stuart 202).
Remarriage is a common feature of the family lifestyle in society today. Many recent studies indicate that children whose custodial parents remarried were found to be less depressed with fewer interpersonal troubles, when compared with children living with a single custodial parent. Studies do show that it tends to matter little which parent becomes the custodial parent when predicting the outcomes of the offspring. However, incompetent parenting on the part of the custodial parent leads to lower achievement rates academically, internalizing and externalizing problems, lowered self-esteem, and a weakened sense of social proficiency. Remarriage is shown to benefit African-Americans more so than the white population (Amato 1280-1281).
Unfortunately, the positive consequences of divorce are not very abundant. One study notes that, after divorce, many children establish strong bonds with their biological mothers, especially daughters. Children of divorce also tend to do better academically and have reduced internalizing and externalizing problems due to an authoritative non-custodial father (Amato 1278-1280). Parents can help make the situation a more positive one by helping the child comprehend the new living setup, and eventually to accept it. Becoming familiar with a child’s emotional structure or the framework for which one acts and grows. The task becomes easier as parents understand more fluently how their children come to understand their surroundings at various stages of childhood (Berger 7-12).
On the negative side, studies conducted in the nineteen-nineties showed that offspring of divorced parents do worse academically than those children with married parents. Hostile relations between parents after the divorce also lead to poor outcomes among the children (Amato 1278-1280). A common initial reaction of young children is one of confusion (Berger 117). Many young children fantasize about the family joining back together. This leads to an unpleasant experience of anxiety and frustration. Getting over divorce tends to be a long process for many young children. Side effects of the divorce tend to be revealed as these children mature and seek personal adult relationships. As the article states," Expecting disaster, they create disaster" (Walter et al. 76). Children of divorce also hold out, in search of that perfect someone. Marriages often take place later in life with more frequent divorce rates in those from divorces families (Walter et al. 75-76).
Children have many different ways of coping with the stress of divorce. Children who use active coping skills tend to adapt to the divorce quicker than those who avoid the situation or use other distraction methods. Also, children who place the blame on themselves tend to take longer to adjust to the situation and have more problems coping with its effects (Amato 1281). School can play a key role in helping a child adjust to the effects of divorce. School provides a wider adult and peer support system. Many parents fail to notify the school when a divorce is occurring, which deprives the child of crucial support needed to help cope (Lewis 32). Studies show that each child, due to personality, age, emotional and intellectual development, will react differently to the stressful situation (Berger 117).
Many children begin to commit strange and odd behavior during the divorce process. This typically means that the child is using its own emotions and strategies to make it through and attempt to accept the divorce experience. Berger notes that "parents should be alert for signs of any general behavior change in the child"(117). Changes may vary in occurrence any time from before the divorce to long after the divorce. Most children tend to use different methods of coping with the situation. These methods, known as defense mechanisms, make the hard times seem a little more bearable to the child (Berger 118).
The first type of defense mechanism that children use is one so commonly known as denial. Berger notes denial as a "refusal to believe an unpleasant reality long after that reality becomes obvious to any objective observer"(118). Some children fall into a state of denial because they are unable to make a healthy transition to a harsh reality. Denial interferes with the healthy adjustment to a new lifestyle instead of helping the child gradually adjust. Small children tend to exaggerate their denial in most cases. Luckily, the presence of denial slowly depletes as the child gets older (Berger 120-122).
Another common defense mechanism used to cope with the effects of divorce is grief. Grief is seen as a normal reaction to the loss of an important object or person. Grief is a perfectly normal reaction to a divorce. Some signs of grief in children are crying, sadness, tearfulness, and a temporary obsession for times in the past. Disturbance of eating and sleeping habits can also be temporary side effects of young children experiencing grief. Oddly, research has also shown some cases in which young children imitate the lost parent. This act is an unconscious one and usually fades away with time (Berger 123-124).
The third type of defense mechanism effects people of all ages and is known as depression. Depression is an illness, which may persist until its effects largely interfere with the life of its victims; in this case, children. Depression is also an illness, which can be controlled by its victim. However, depression in children is not very well understood or identified. Some symptoms of depression could be insomnia, crying without reason, a sense of hopelessness, lowered self-esteem, sudden weight loss or gain, and a gear that life will not get better. If the divorce is a highly emotional one, the chances of the child becoming depressed increase. The high strain of emotional stress can bring o feelings of sorrow, anger, and sometimes even hatred. These effects can often linger on and intrude on the child’s ability to do everyday activities such as learn, play, and make friends. This can also affect the child’s ability to lead a normal life. Some examples of how children display their bitter feelings are such things as bed-wetting and decreased academic performance (Berger 126-129).
Another action expressed through defense mechanisms is anger. Adults often find this emotion hard to comprehend. Due to their inexperience, young children don’t particularly know how to direct their anger at the right target. The custodial parent, the most observable parent, tends to receive most of this misdirected anger. Children are more likely to vent their anger at the parent with whom they feel more stable. They do this because they can’t deal with the situation in a reasonable manner. Divorce leaves the children with feelings of anger and confusion. These feelings don’t usually stem from the distaste for one parent, but rather from the stress caused by the situation. As the child grows to understand the situation more, strong feelings of anger will decline (Berger 133-134).
A more common defense mechanism is acting out by the child. Berger notes acting out as being "Any form of deliberate misconduct on the part of the patient"(135).
Children who act out get into fights, bully other children, break set rules consistently, and engage in misconduct with other peers. Sadly, children who act out do so in an attempt to notify others of their own feelings of anger, insecurity, fear, and irresistible need to be loved (Berger 135).
The last type of defense mechanism displayed by children of divorce is the act of regression. Regression is displayed when a child tends to move backwards in stages of development rather than forward. This sub-conscious effort on the part of the child is an attempt to return life to the good old days. The child seeks a time in life when it did not have to deal with the stressed of divorce and conflicts in the family didn’t exist. Infants become a symbol of envy to the child who sees the infant as having no problems and having its every need met by the parent (Berger 142-143).
Berger notes all of these defense mechanisms as "an attempt to cope with fear, anger, and sadness over the divorce situation"(144). Walter and other authors suggest three easy steps in helping the child cope with the stress of divorce in a healthy manner.
First, they encourage parents to stay strong. They recommend reassuring the child that he or she is not responsible for the emotional welfare of the parents. Secondly, provide continuity. Maintain a schedule of common activities. The child needs the strong support provided by familiar faces and comfortable scenes. Lastly, it is recommended to parents not to let their quest for a new love life preoccupy their time at the expense of the child (Walter et al. 78).
Amato, Paul R. "The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children." Journal of Marriage and the Family. Nov 2000 vol.62 p.1269-1287.
Berger, Stuart. Divorce Without Victims. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1983.
Lewis, Jennifer and William Sammons. "Divorce and Children." Our Children. August/September 1999 p.32-33.
Stuart, Irving R. and Lawrence Edwin Abt. Children of Separation and Divorce. Grossman Publishers, New York, New York, 1972.
Walter, Kim and others. "Should You Stay Together for the Kids?" Time. Sept. 25, 2000 vol.156 issue 13 p.74-83.