Will the Kids Be All Right? Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children
When you ask any parent what they’re most apprehensive of in a divorce, it will almost always be how it will impact their kids. This rings true for my experience as well. Understanding the long-term effects of divorce on children is crucial for parents navigating through this challenging process.
At every stage of the divorce process — deliberating, looking for help, separated, or even, “I’ve signed the divorce papers, but I still feel like I’m going crazy” — I worried about the impact on my children. How were they expected to cope with the breakdown of the only family structure they knew?
When debating my divorce, I was fixated on my girls. Their well-being was the single most important factor in whether I would get a divorce. I had to find out the long-term effects of divorce on my children.
In a detached “social scientist” kind of way, I polled various friends and acquaintances who were children of divorce about their experiences. Did they feel okay? Did they think of themselves as reasonably adjusted? How screwed up were they because of their parents’ split? What I learned was everyone had mixed feelings about the ordeal.
For example, one female twenty-something friend said matter-of-factly that her parent’s divorce “was not even an issue.” Another man in his forties still sounded tired. “There was so much fighting,” he sighed, “I wish they had done it earlier.” Others were more emotional. An old friend I went to college with seemed to be still mending the wounds of her parent’s divorce and became personally hurt when I divulged that the question was about my reality. I told her I was considering divorce and needed to know how she felt today. She replied coolly that she was and is “scarred.” It may have happened more than thirty years later, but she was still not willing to “forgive her parents.”
Then, I looked to the professional community. I asked doctors, shrinks, and counselors, “What is best for the children?” But, yet again, there were no clear-cut answers. The uniform professional response was that they had seen both good and damaging results regarding divorce. However, there was a common thread between everyone I talked to. In one way or another, they encouraged me to reflect on the issue of conflict in the home.
How much conflict is too much?
And how do you measure conflict? I wondered. We all know that no two people always agree in any relationship, but at what point does the number of disagreements cross the line? My husband and I could never resolve our conflicts. So, as we considered getting a divorce, our fighting continued growing. How could we do the impossible and resolve our conflict about not resolving our conflicts? It sounded like a vicious circle to me. I reflected and Googled more.
If only I could know for sure what the long-term effects of divorce on children are. If I knew exactly how this would impact my kids, I could make the final decisions regarding my marriage. Unfortunately, like all facets of life, love, and marriage, there is no one clear answer. So many different factors determine the long-term effects of divorce on children. Even the few clinical, longitudinal studies available have differing conclusions about kids and divorce.
The work of two better-known researchers, Judith Wallerstein and E. Mavis Hetherington, seem at odds. In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-Year Landmark Study(2001), Wallerstein reports long-term adverse effects on children of divorce. In For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered(2003), Hetherington says that not all kids fare so severely and that divorce can actually help children living in high-conflict homes.
Seemingly oppositional, these studies also remain controversial for their methodologies. They compare “children of divorced parents” to kids whose parents “did not divorce.” The first group is never compared to those kids whose “parents almost divorced,” or those whose parents “kept it together but fought every day,” or those whose parents never fought. It’s a flawed comparison. It reveals only that being part of a happy family is better than being part of an unhappy one.
What is especially strange and surprising is that as much as divorce is a reality in American society, social science has yet to figure out a way to measure the nuances of our existence.
To some extent, Wallerstein and Hetherington agree on one thing, as do all the studies and serious commentaries ranging from scholarly work to the more legit blogs to parenting magazines: divorce is bad. Divorce is a stressor that poses short and long-term risks.
Learning from experience
What I have learned from my divorce and subsequent divorce recovery work with clients is that the long-term effects of divorce on children generally depend on the nature of the divorce. A peaceful divorce (if that is not an oxymoron) or at least a more amicable divorce will negatively impact your kids less than a high-conflict divorce. However, we understand that this can be a challenge in its own right! Most divorces contain at least some level of conflict.
It is important to understand that conflict in the home does not always mean out-of-control fights or domestic abuse. Conflict includes all of our negative words and actions during the divorce process. The hurtful words shared between fighting parents can leave a lasting impact on your children. The impact of these fighting words is the leading cause of unhappiness in children of divorce. You must be mindful of how your words impact your kids and, as parents, hold yourself accountable for your comments and actions. You have the power to send a negative or positive message to your kids throughout the process.
You’ve heard that “children are like sponges.” They are incredibly receptive and soak in all of their parent’s feelings and emotions. And while you would never intend to send your kids a negative or wrong message, your actions toward your Ex might say otherwise. We might unintentionally lose control during the long, stressful, and emotional period when our kids need us the most. This is an important consideration when considering the long-term effects of divorce on children.
Look at yourself first.
You are your kids’ biggest role model and influence. Even if not outright, they will study your response to the divorce. You will need to be mindful of your behavior and how it will impact their recovery. Don’t look to others for how the divorce played out for their kids. Instead, focus on yourself, your family, and your goal: to minimize your children’s exposure to conflict and negativity.
Suggestion 1: It will likely be difficult for your kids to grasp the concept of divorce fully. You must emphasize that the divorce is not your kids’ fault. You can help mitigate the long-term effects of divorce on your children by being open and available for their emotions and questions. Be mindful of their needs and emotions during this period. As one client told me recently, her daughter is experiencing increased anxiety due to the separation. But as an observant mom, my client recognizes her daughter didn’t just need verbal reassurance; she also needed the extra hug.
Suggestion 2: You will do anything and everything to ensure your kids are supported through the process. However, sometimes, they need support beyond what you can give. They might benefit from the help of a therapist or counselor to process their emotions and any sense of guilt surrounding the divorce. Additionally, you can seek out developmentally appropriate ways to help your child understand what s/he is going through.
Suggestion 3: Above all, show your children that you are still a family no matter how you define your marital status. Your kids need a good and present parent now more than ever. This is your chance to start fresh and rebuild, free of any restraints from the past!
Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner with them through the emotional and oftentimes complicated experience of divorce. We invite you to learn what’s possible for you and your precious life. Schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation with SAS now.
*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”