Separation has happened at any point in a relationship. While it is definitely easier to split up before even getting married or having children, sometimes the relationship just does not work out later on, and the couple has to make the tough decision to divorce. Although divorce is usually just between the couple, young children who are caught in the middle of the crossfire may bear some of the burdens upon themselves. Additionally, when everyone is caught up with the stress of everything that is going on, it can be easy for children to feel like their parents do not care. It is important to remember that no two children are the same, even if they are siblings or identical twins. How each child reacts to divorce also depends on their ages, temperaments and individual life circumstances. That said, there are some common ways in which divorce can affect children.
Doing Poorly in School
Children may become confused as they try to comprehend the changing dynamics in their household. Frequent conflict at home could interrupt their focus, causing them to be less efficient in completing their homework or studying. They may earn lower grades in upcoming tests due to a lack of ability to study, worsening with time the more they feel out of touch with the syllabus. Additionally, they could miss school regularly or drop out. Over time, children may lose interest in their schoolwork or even in furthering their education altogether.
Often, many children retreat into solitude when their family is going through a divorce. Even if they used to be very sociable and outgoing, they may end up spending most of their time alone or at home, turning down invitations from friends to hang out. They could even be fearful of social interactions, worried that they will not be able to connect with their peers or if people will bring up the topic. Children may also feel insecure, especially if the concept of divorce is new to them. They may wonder why it has to happen to their family and if they are the only one who feels this way, which is only amplified by going out and seeing others happy with their families.
Children could feel angry, irritable or guilty about the separation. In an instant, their whole world is changing – often without their consent, and they have no power to stop it from happening. They may feel overwhelmed and unsure about what this means for them. There might be no explanation why leaving children to wonder why their parents have separated. Children could be angry at their parents, their friends, society, or themselves. Some children may even blame themselves, thinking that something they did might have driven their parents to divorce.
The parents will usually explain that they have thought about the decision long and hard and have finally decided that divorce is the only way forward. However, the child may still feel unhappy about the decision, and subsequently, experience guilt or anger at themselves for feeling that way.
It can be difficult for a child to adjust to no longer living with one of their parents. The child may cry or be clingier than usual. They may also ask for the other parent when they are not around. Usually, the issue of custody is settled in court and children do not get a say in who they live with. This can cause them distress if they miss the other parent. The situation can be alleviated if the child can spend an equal amount of time with each parent, or is allowed visitation to the other parent. On the other hand, separation anxiety can worsen if the parent with the child completely cuts off contact with the other parent.
Risky or Destructive Behavior
Children may feel that there are unresolved conflicts in their lives, eventually being more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. This includes taking part in crimes, engaging in smoking or substance abuse, and rebelling through destructive or aggressive behaviour. In the United States, adolescents whose parents have divorced often start drinking alcohol earlier and consume more alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and drug products than their peers from non-divorced households.
Additionally, research hints at the possibility of earlier engagement in sexual activity for girls living away from their fathers. Children whose parents divorce when they are five or younger are more likely to become sexually active before the age of 16. Growing up away from the father may also cause a child to have a higher number of sexual partners later in life.
While it is normal for any child to feel sad or down about their parents separating, the chances of children from divorced families developing clinical depression are higher than those from non-divorced families. They may also be at higher risk of suicide threats or attempts, feeling like their life has changed beyond repair. Children who feel that the separation is their fault might take it upon themselves to try and mend the relationship, which can lead them to a further downward spiral of thoughts when their parents have finalized the divorce despite their best efforts.
In heated fights, children often feel stuck in the middle, not knowing if they should pick a side between their parents or remain on the fence. Older children might support one parent and bear the wrath of the other. Some parents may exacerbate the situation by asking their children which parent they prefer or giving them messages to send to the other parent. This could add to the stress that the child is going through and overwhelm them.
Some effects of divorce persist even when the children have grown up. Research by the University of Utah shows that children who have experienced divorce are more likely to divorce when they get into relationships. In fact, this increased likelihood maybe two to three times that of children from non-divorced homes. This may occur due to a shift in attitude towards relationships and marriage when a child sees their parents going through divorce firsthand. Although the concept of true love is often championed in young children’s stories, the children of divorce may wonder whether love really exists if their parents have separated. As a result, they may be less enthusiastic to enter committed relationships when they are older. Some may also opt to live together with their significant other, but without marriage.
Helping Children Cope with Divorce
Divorce is never an easy decision, but children suffer its consequences regardless. Different children of different personalities and age groups will respond in various ways, but having a trusted person to talk to can help them continue with their lives. Some children may also appreciate schedules and routines, such as regular visitations to both parents.