Divorce is now part of everyday American life. The effects of divorce are embedded in our laws and institutions, our manners and mores, our novels and children’s storybooks, and our closest and most important relationships. Indeed, divorce has become so pervasive that many people naturally assume it has seeped into the social and cultural mainstream over a long period of time. Yet this is not the case. Divorce has become an American way of life only as the result of recent and revolutionary change. This change in the family structure has indeed hurt children. Divorce has created economic insecurity and a disadvantage for many children who would not otherwise be economically vulnerable. The effects of divorce has led to more fragile and unstable family households and has caused a mass exodus of fathers from children’s households and, all too often, from their lives. In sum, divorce has changed the very nature of American childhood. One out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children. During this difficult period, parents may be preoccupied with their own problems, but continue to be the most important people in their children’s lives. Children of divorced parents live in unstable family households and are at a greater risk of developing mental and physical problems than are children of intact families.
In a hostile situation the loss of a parent is often felt as failure or helplessness because a resolution was not found. Children in this situation often experience the loss of a parent by blaming themselves for not being able to fix the problems, and take on an adult role to compensate for their perceived incompetence. These children lose their childhood. The loss felt through divorce becomes a painful experience that stays with the child internally when not resolved. The children’s reality is often “. . . . not only losing their parent, but their home, friends, bedrooms, pets, church, and schools.” 1 A change in normal, everyday interaction takes place. These differences cause feelings of loss. When children are put into caretaking parental roles, it creates a loss for them of their normal activities. “The necessary psychological, and emotional levels of loyalty, trust, security and safety, being loved and cared for and having a sense of belonging that children need. . . . ,” are influenced by the way the parents act during and following the divorce. 2
Parents must be aware that children are self-centered because they are children. Children will wonder what they have done to cause the divorce, and also wonder what they can do to fix the problems. Although they are resilient and adapt to changes, including divorce, “their sense of self is affected during moments of loss.” 3 Children can not express the whole picture of how they are feeling, so their emotions are expressed through their behavior. “ Behaviors such as pouting, being obnoxious, selfishness, being scared and lying. . . . ” are all signs of loss. 4 Children are not adults and they can confuse their realities. Both adolescent and adult children need to understand their history. Children may fantasize about reconciliation or that they are powerful. They do this in order “ to stop a feeling of powerlessness they feel for their parents and for themselves.” 5 They realize their life has changed, the people they love are acting differently and this is hard for them to deal with. It is during these times of realization that the emotions come in waves. It is very similar to an ocean. Calm for a period of time and then a huge wave comes out of nowhere. The emotional response feels overwhelming.
The experience of loss often triggers emotions of a past experience of other losses. During this time their self-esteem feels damaged and “they do not like who they are or how their behavior has changed.” 6 Children describe the feelings of loss and sadness as being prolonged. The feelings affect them in every area of their life, even in areas they have never felt before. Often reactions of unfairness surface and questions of “Why is this happening to me?” come to mind during the loss period. Because trust is built on how a person is treated by another person, a persons trust level is greatly affected by divorce. No one, including a child, knows how they are going to be treated during or following divorce. This aspect of loss, loss of trust, causes feelings of respect to dissolve. Children feel this same loss of trust or betrayal. Feeling betrayed by a parent is very difficult for a child. “The intense feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion. . . . ” are too much for them to carry. 7 Children turn these feelings in toward themselves, and this is demonstrated in their behavior and attitude. Their fear of abandonment is overwhelming, and the fear stays with them. Children know they need adults to survive, so feeling betrayed is extremely intense for them and often feels like abandonment. Often something that seems to a parent as simple as a broken promise feels like betrayal to a child.
Betrayal is also felt when parents are constantly arguing, or when parents do not show enough caring to come to an event. “Reality seems impossible to comprehend” and feelings of loss are pervasive. 8 Children feel powerless if there are constant arguments, especially about special events in their lives: birthdays, holidays and celebrations. Children who feel powerless often fantasize about facing their new reality and finding their own power to deal with the new changes. Some situations can exacerbate the harmful effects of divorce on children. If parents lie to their children and withhold information about the breakup, they will create more anxiety for the children and undermine their trust. Wallerstein and Kelley found that four-fifths of the youngest children they studied were not provided with either an adequate explanation of the situation or assurance of their continued care. 9 In effect, “they woke up one morning to find one parent gone.” 10
Children and adolescents experience separation and its aftermath as the most stressful period of their lives. The family rupture evokes an acute sense of shock, intense anxiety, and profound sorrow. The child’s early responses are governed “. . . . neither by an understanding of issues leading to the divorce nor by the fact that divorce has a high incidence in the community.” 11 To the child, divorce signifies the collapse of the structure that provides support and protection.
The child reacts to the divorce as the cutting of his or her lifeline. Realistic fears and fantasies about catastrophes that the divorce will bring in its wake compound the initial suffering of children and adolescents in response to a marital separation. Children suffer with a pervasive sense of vulnerability because they feel that the protective and nurturing function over the family has given way. They grieve over the loss the non-custodial parent, over the loss of the intact family, and often over the multiple losses of neighborhood, friends, and school. Children also worry about their distressed parents. They are concerned over who will take care of the custodial parent who has left and whether the custodial parent will be able to manage alone. They experience intense anger toward one or both parents whom they hold responsible for disrupting the family. Some of their anger is reactive and defends them against their own feelings of powerlessness, their concern about being lost in the shuffle, and their fear that their needs will be disregarded as the parents give priority to their own wishes and needs. Some children, especially young children, suffer with guilt over fantasized misdeeds that they feel may have contributed to the family quarrels and led to the divorce. Others feel their responsibility is to mend the broken marriage. Parents experience a diminished capacity to parent their children during the acute phase of the divorcing process and often during the transitional phase as well.12 At it’s simplest level this diminished parenting capacity “appears in the household disorder that prevails in the aftermath of divorce, in the rising tempers of the custodial parent and child, in reduced competence and a greater sense of helplessness in the custodial parent, and in lower expectations of the child for appropriate social behavior.” 13 During the divorce period, a sharp decline in emotional sensitivity and support for the child can be seen. Pleasure in the parent-child relationship and attentiveness to the child’s needs and wishes decreases.
The parents spends less time talking playing and interacting with the child; and a steep escalation in the inappropriate expression of anger surfaces. One not uncommon component of the parent-child relationship coincident with the marital breakup is “. . . . the adult’s conscious or unconscious wish to abandon the child and thus to erase the unhappy marriage in its entirety.” 14 Child neglect can be a serious hazard. When parents divorce, children lose something that is fundamental to their development-the family structure. The family “compromises the scaffolding upon which children mount successive developmental stages, from infancy to adolescence.” 15 The family structure supports their psychological, physical, and emotional ascent into maturity. When the structure collapses, the children’s world is temporarily without supports. Children of divorce often lose the mom or dad they use to know. As the adults respond to the catastrophic changes in their lives, they may move into depressive states, which reduces their energy for, patience with, and availability to their children. Despite a mothers best intentions, she may not be capable of being the same person emotionally as she was prior to the separation. Children at different ages react differently to the collapse of the family unit.
The nature and intensity of a child’s response to parental divorce depend, in large part, not only on the child’s level of understanding but also in the psychological and emotional needs at his or her stage of development. While parental divorce at each stage presents risks to the child’s healthy adjustment, those close to the child-parents, relatives and teachers- can seek to understand the child’s reactions and can take steps to minimize the negative effects. When divorce disrupts a family, the relationships between parents and children are often changed, as parents try to cope with their own stresses and re-order their lives. Because of these changes, the ability of the family to fulfill its critical functions of child rearing and child protection may be weakened. Only a rare child does not experience at least short-term problems when parents divorce. Many children suffer negative effects for longer periods of time, carrying into their own adulthood the scars of this traumatic disruption in family life. Many exhibit behavior problems at home and at school, have lower self-esteem, and have higher levels of anxiety and depression. Some children feel guilty, erroneously concluding that they were responsible for the divorce because of their “bad behavior.” They may also feel ashamed and humiliated because their family is not longer like the intact families of their friends. Even in stable and happy families, “. . . . children often say their greatest fear is that Mom and Dad will divorce.” 16 They fear becoming a victim in a situation in which they have no control. In cases where the family situation is chaotic and it is apparent to the child that the parents are not getting along, the reasons may be more understandable, but the results are no less painful for the child. 17 In the opinion of some professionals, the breaking of the family unit through divorce may be more difficult for children to deal with psychologically than the loss of a parent through death. “While death and divorce both bring about major changes in families, “two key components of grief-sorrow and anger- are expressed differently according to which event brought an end to the marriage.” 18 The consequences for children of divorce are often more serious.
Death is rarely brought about through choice by a parent; divorce is. Death is final; on the other hand, many children fantasize about reversing divorce and bringing back the absent parent. When death strikes a family, the rituals of grieving and the support of others usually help children through the crisis. In divorce, however, the children may experience the shame, isolation, and lack of support that parental breakup often engenders. 19 While the comforting presence of a parent is normally enough to reassure a child during other types of traumas like natural disasters, the paradox of divorce for the child is that the parent initiates the disruption. This can also have the effect of undermining the child’s trust in his or her caretaker.
Understanding that a child needs to bond and re-bond with both parents is for some the most difficult challenge of divorce. In co-parenting the benefits for children include: feeling cared about, feeling trust in the ability to share, having self-esteem because of the parents commitment to them, having a sense of belonging with both parents, and a sense of security because their parents have a harmonious relationship.
The alternative is that children “hide” their feelings, their reality, and a part of their lives causing lifelong problems. Through co-parenting children will learn that relationships do change, but do not have to be destroyed. That harmony can be restored after divorce, and despite the fact that relationship bonds do change, people can teach themselves to redefine those relationships and keep them healthy. Many problems have come between parents and children when the parent tries to control whom the children love, and whom they do not love. Children do not always understand what is happening or how they feel. However, they do notice how their parents relate to each other. All children need some harmony in their lives and some never give up the fantasy that they could somehow get their parents to reconcile. Children need help in facing the reality that their parents are divorced.
While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened and confused by the threat to their security. Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort or direction. At this time children are called upon to invest in the emotional well being of their parents. Divorce asks children to be sympathetic, understanding, respectful, and polite to confused and unhappy parents. The sacrifice comes from the children. The parent initiates divorce and this often frightens children. Children are entitled to the affection and association of two parents, not one. Family disruption creates a deep division in parents’ interests and the interests of children. During the time of divorce, parents fail to meet their parental obligations thus increasing the risk for their children to develop mental and physical problems. The parents who take care of themselves will be best able to take care of their children. The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can afford to recognize.
Fewer Americans today regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue. Therefore, it is much easier for adults to ignore the feelings of the non-custodial parent. This has a lasting affect on the child involved. The experience of dependable and durable family bonds is what shapes a child’s sense of trust and fosters the development of such traits as initiative and independence. Without these traits it is extremely difficult to cultivate other personal characteristics such as resourcefulness, responsibility, and resilience which are essential in a pluralistic society. Our civic and religious traditions offer a vision of the obligated self, voluntarily bound to a set of roles, duties, and responsibilities, and of a nation where sacrifice for the next generation guides adult ambitions and purposes and where wholeness of self is found in service and commitment to others. Our political ideals and aspirations for equality, independence, and individual happiness have helped shape our expectations and ideals of marriage and helped us to criticize and correct its abuses. In the vow to marry “for better, for worse.” We have been keenly attuned to the “for better.” Yet because of our aspirations for improvement, we may have neglected the challenges and requirements of the second half of the vow. The second half is what we implicitly accept when we become parents, pledging ourselves to a biological or adopted child for all of our lives, without certain knowledge of that child’s health, capabilities or destiny. It is also a pledge we make to a chosen beloved, without certain of what lies ahead.
Barros, Nancy, Barios, Nancy, and Karen J. Todd. Parenting Through Divorce: The Lasting
Effects. Motivo Publishing Company, 1995. 104.
Clulow, Christopher F. “Divorce as Bereavement: Similarities and Differences.” Family and Conciliation Courts Review June. 1990. 19-22.
Dreger, Nancy. “Divorce and the American family.” Current Health 2 Nov. 1996. 6.
Garrity, Carla B., and Mitchell A. Baris. Caught In The Middle: Protecting the Children of High Conflict Divorce. New York, N.Y.: Lexington, Inc., 1994. 58-63.
Grottkau, Beverly J., and Eva Augustin Rumpf. Till Divorce Do Us Part. Lakewood, CO: Glenbridge Publishing Ltd., 1996. 96.
Hickney, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Dalton. Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce. Carson City, NV: Gold Leaf Press, 1994. 92.
Schnieder, Meg F., and Joan Zuckerburg. Difficult Questions Kids Ask-and are too afraid to ask-About Divorce. New York, N.Y.: Fireside Rockefeller Center, 1996. 47.
Wallerstein, Judith S. Parent-child relationships following divorce. Boston: Little Brown, 1985. 317-348.
Wallerstein, Judith S., and Joan Berlin Kelley. Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1980. 35-36.
Wallerstein, Judith S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1986. 57.
Weyburne, Darlene. What to Tell the Kids About Your Divorce. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1999. 147.
Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. 64.