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Impact of Divorce on Children

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A look at the immediate and long-term impact of divorce on children.

All children are affected by divorce in some way. Their world, their security and the stability they have known seem to fall apart when parents divorce. In addition, the child's gender, age, psychological health, and maturity will also all affect how a divorce impacts a child. But, no matter what their age, children appear to have some universal worries when divorce occurs.

  • They may worry that their parents don't love them anymore.
  • They feel abandoned. They feel like the parent has divorced them too.
  • They feel helpless and powerless to do anything about the situation.
  • They have a greater need for nurturing. They may become clingy and whiny--or they may become moody and silent.
  • They feel angry. Their anger can be expressed in many ways, from extremely emotional to quiet resentment.
  • Children go through the grieving process and may also experience conflicts of loyalty.
  • Many times, children feel as though the divorce is their fault.
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  • Sometimes children or teens feel they have to "take care of" one or both of their parents. Giving up one's childhood to care for emotionally troubled parents is a widespread characteristic in children of divorce.

Children often feel they are at fault for the divorce. They may feel that something they did or said caused a parent to leave. Sometimes children or teens feel they have to "take care of" one or both of their parents. Giving up one's childhood to care for emotionally troubled parents is a widespread characteristic in children of divorce.

Although there is the assumption that children are naturally resilient and can get through a divorce with little or no impact on their lives; the truth is that children really aren't "resilient" and that divorce leaves children to struggle for a life-time with the after-effects of a decision their parents made.

Long-Term Impact on Children of Divorced Parents

Some of the effects of a divorce will pass in time; others may last for weeks, years, or even the rest of a child's life.

  • loss of self-esteem
  • anger directed both toward others and themselves
  • drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • frequent rule breaking and destructive behavior
  • depression, isolation or withdrawal from friends and family, suicidal thoughts
  • increased or early sexual activity

Other significant issues include:

  • feelings of loneliness and abandonment
  • anger directed both toward others and themselves
  • difficulity or inability to establish or maintain intimate, or other types, of interpersonal relationships

Long-term studies suggest that a person's overall social adjustment will relate directly to how her quality of life and her relationship with both of her parents turn out after a divorce. If both parents continue to be involved and have healthy relationships with the child, he is more likely to be well-adjusted.

Other studies suggest that difficulties of divorce experienced in childhood may not appear until adulthood for some children. For this group, there may be a resurgence of fear, anger, guilt, and anxiety. These feelings tend to arise when a young adult is attempting to make important life decisions, such as marriage.

For parents considering a divorce or who are already divorced, it's important to remember that children need strong support systems and individuals in their lives to help them weather their parents' divorce.

Sources:

  • "Effects of Divorce on Kids" University of Missouri Extension
  • David A. Brent, (et. al.) "Post-traumatic Stress Disorders in Peers of Adolescent Suicide Victims: Predisposing Factors and Phenomenology." Journal of the AMerican Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 34 (1995): 209-215.
  • Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children: A Developmental Vulnerability Model Neil Kalter, Ph.D., University of Michigan, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57(4), October, 1987
  • Judith Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, 2000.
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