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The Physiological Effects of Divorce on Children

The Physiological Effects of Divorce on Children

The dissolution of a marriage brings about major changes in the lives of the children it affects. No matter the age—or gender—of the children, there will be a psychological and emotional impact.

 

Bearing witness to the separation of the two foundational adults in their life can be confusing and devastating for a child. Children may struggle to accept what they see—the violation of marriage vows or the loss of love between mom and dad. They may have to adjust to being toted back and forth between two homes or separate holiday celebrations. The periods of absence of one parent, alone, create a difficult new family dynamic.

 

A parental divorce stands as a significant marker in a child’s history. It represents a point in time where life stopped being one way and started being a different way. All happenings in the child’s life will be cataloged as pre-divorce or post-divorce events.

 

Responses to divorce can vary based on whether the child is still in childhood (age 9 or under), or has entered adolescence. The differences in response can be summed up like this: divorce intensifies parental dependence in children under nine, and expedites independence in adolescents. Young children will regress to behaviors that they have already outgrown, like needing help with dressing or toilet training, thumbsucking, or whining and tantrums. To the contrary, older children will push away from their parents.

 

Divorce impacts children’s psychological stability. Emotional and behavioral problems and negative feelings can persist for a very long time. At the time of a parental divorce, children can experience a myriad of emotional reactions, including:

 

• Sadness

• Anger

• Depression (often lasts into later stages of life)

• Loneliness

• Anxiety and worry

• Low self-esteem

• Low self-confidence

• Fear

• Rejection

• Conflicting loyalties

• Sense of fault

 

Effects of Divorce on Young Children

When children experience divorce prior to age five, they are especially vulnerable to emotional turmoil. They will often cling to their parents and revert back to characteristically infantile behaviors, like bedwetting.

 

The young child's world revolves around parental dependence. Parents are their providers and foremost social companions. Divorce wreaks havoc on their trust, as their parents demonstrate unreliability and unpredictable behavior and routine.

 

The child is subjected to unfamiliarity and insecurity. It’s hard for them to deal with only being able to see one parent at a time and having to be away from the other. Explaining the permanency of divorce can be tricky. Children often hold on to the hope that mom and dad will live together again and the family will be whole once more.

 

Fantasy helps the young child cope with the pain and uncertainty that is born from divorce. A joint parental presence at holiday gatherings and special events, though done with good intentions, can actually feed these fantasies and delay the child’s adjustment to the new family situation.

 

Effects of Divorce on Adolescents

Rather than becoming clingy, adolescents will withdraw from home life and set out to find intimacy and love somewhere else. Teenagers (12 to 15 years old) may react in one of two ways: avoiding “growing up” or trying to hurry through adolescence.

 

Substance dependence, hostility, depression, and early sexual activity are highly likely to occur after a parental divorce. Interestingly, these behaviors are more likely to manifest if the divorce occurred while the child was under age five. They’re least likely to appear if the divorce occurred while the child was between five and ten. This can be attributed to child development science, which supports that trauma in a child’s “neediest” stage of life is incredibly impactful.

 

The adolescent is independent—craving separation from parents, self-sufficiency, and more time with friends. At this stage of life, their scope of experience is extending out into the world and beyond the confines of their childhood home.

 

This independence enables the adolescent to more quickly accept the finality of divorce. Older children tend to respond to divorce in a more aggressive manner. Parents may notice increased anger and rebellious behavior. This is the adolescent’s attempt to neglect established disciplinary guidelines since their parents failed to show commitment to the family.

 

While young children long to get their parents back, adolescent children may seek revenge or retaliation against their parents. Loss of trust is the driving factor behind both of these responses—the pain just shows itself in different ways. An adolescent will start operating under the principle of “I’m the only one I can depend on.” They are simply responding to being hurt by trying to dish out hurt in return.

 

How to Reduce the Negative Effects of Divorce on Children

Though divorce is extremely difficult to navigate for all of those involved, there are ways that parents can help reduce the negative impact on their children. For divorced parents of adolescents, the goal should be to increase the child’s responsibility in an effort to slow their rushed separation from the family. For parents of younger children, the priority is to establish a routine and restore predictability.

 

Some keys to helping your child through this time include:

 

• Detecting behavioral changes

• Viewing every troublesome behavior as a means of communication

• Understanding that challenging behaviors result from underdeveloped skills (communication, processing, coping skills, etc.)

 

First and foremost, parents should create a plan for telling their children about the divorce. If the decision to divorce is absolutely final, this should be explained to the children, in age-appropriate language, without assigning blame. Ideally, both parents should speak to the children together to ensure they’re sending the same message.

 

• “Mom and dad are getting a divorce. It’s not your fault and it’s ok to be sad. We will both love you forever, but there is no chance that we will get back together.”

 

It probably goes without saying, it’s better to not fight in front of your kids. Emotions can be difficult to restrain, but when children witness parents insulting, berating, and hurting one another, it confirms their fear that their family is disintegrating into an unrecognizable mess. Emotional issues should be saved for therapists, and legal issues reserved for lawyers or mediators.

 

Your responsibilities towards your kids will continue forever, regardless of the divorce. Establish a co-parenting strategy that prioritizes the needs of the children. Encourage children to have a relationship with the other parent. Studies have shown that children are better off having access to both parents. So, both parents should be highly involved in the child’s life—regardless of who has primary custody.

 

Divorce is costly in many ways—financially, emotionally, and time-wise. There may be lengthy negotiations of custody, finances, and division of property. Fighting over these issues will increase the time spent in court, as well as the emotional drain on everyone involved. Parents should never reveal to their children how much their divorce truly cost the family. Children will find it unsettling that their parents jeopardized the future of the family because they couldn’t come to an agreement.

 

Last, but certainly not least, hold off on introducing any new romantic partners. Before bringing a new companion home, the relationship should be serious and have staying power to avoid putting children through another traumatic breakup. Children should not be rushed into step-family situations, either.

 

In general, behaving with integrity and civility will increase your children’s respect and confidence in your ability to maintain a functioning family. Establishing a routine, providing reassurance, and healthy communication are crucial for reducing the negative effects of divorce on children.

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