by Elizabeth Shahnasarian and Tyler Rigsby
The following story is based on true events; the names have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities.
One night in early Spring in the Smith household, the family was beginning to gather from the separate corners of the house to convene at the dinner table for a typical meal of spaghetti. The two children Ryan, twelve, and Cody, eight, were seated across from one another as they had hundreds of times before, with their parents, Jack and Jill, at the heads of the table. As the meal began, seemingly like any other before, Jack told the boys that their mother had something that she wanted to tell them. Then the boys’ mother started a conversation that would end with their parents splitting up and eventually ending in the frequently more common fate of divorce.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics (2008), between 43% and 50% of first marriages end in divorce. Divorce rates are the highest in America. In fact, 60% of all children will spend a part of their lives not living with their biological parents because of divorce. Clearly, divorce plays a prevalent role in American society. This blog article will explore the following questions: Does divorce affect child development? What factors affect how children cope with divorce? What steps can divorce parents take to minimize the undesired effects of divorce on their children?
Two extreme positions on the effects of divorce on child development exist. The first, believes that children of divorced parents suffer long term consequences that plague their mental health for the rest of their lives. These children are less likely to form intimate relationships and have less academic success (Glenn, 2001). In stark contrast, the opposing view holds that divorce has no measurable effect on child development (Harris, 1998). This view, however, conflicts hundreds of empirical studies. Children of divorce parents are twice as likely to be depressed and unhappy, have lower self-esteem, be less socially responsible and competent, have problems in school and act out. Boys are likely to become unruly and angry, while girls have a tendency to be demanding and engage in attention-seeking behavior. Most psychologists hold a belief in between the two extremes; they believe divorce does have some negative effects on children’s adjustments, but that those effects can be small (Lansford, 2009).
The most important factor that determines the quality of the child’s eventual adjustment to divorce is exposure to parental conflict. In fact, child outcome is more strongly associated with exposure to conflict than parental absence or economic stress. If a child receives some information as to why his parents are divorcing, he/she is less likely to blame himself/herself and adjusts more positively to the situation (Amato, 1996). Moreover, the child’s parenting style affects adjustment to divorce. Children of authoritative parents are likely to handle divorce better than children of other parenting styles. Authoritative parenting is a parenting style that is characterized as high demandingness and high responsiveness. Authoritative parents establish clear standards and limits for children, but also allow their children freedom within those limits (Lansford, 2009).
Another component of the child’s adjustment to the divorce is both the gender and the age of the child at the time of the divorce. Girls tend to adjust to divorce better than boys do, generally because the mother will get custody and girls relate to their mothers better than their fathers. As far as the age of the child goes, there are varying opinions, but generally it is regarded that younger children have trouble understanding the cause of the divorce and have higher risks of anxiety and are more likely to blame themselves. Conversely, if the child is old enough to understand the cause for divorce the transition can be more seamless, likewise if the child is too young to remember before the divorce.
While the effects of divorce are inevitable, there are some steps that can be taken to minimize the effects on your child’s development.
1- Use authoritative parenting style.
This is incredibly important in order to minimize confusion and developmental problems for the children in the divorce. The authoritative parenting style focuses on being both demanding and supportive, setting clear expectations but maintaining fluid, bidirectional communication. This ensures that the children have a consistent idea of what is expected of them at each house, as well as feeling a constant level of support.
2- Give your child some information regarding the divorce.
The children need to know that they are not the cause for the divorce. The best way to convince them of this is to give them some insight as to the real reason. Excessive details are unnecessary, but having something to attribute the reason will help give them a peace of mind.
One of the worst things for a child’s mental health during the divorce is to feel caught in the middle. The children should not be privy to any arguments or disagreements between the two parents, especially those concerning the children. This will only lead to increased anxiety and in the case of arguments about the children could make them blame themselves for the divorce.
4- Have an amicable relationship with your spouse after the divorce.
This will help maintain the children’s mental stability throughout the divorce, because they will see that their parents do not dislike one another. Behaving this way will help the children better cope with the situation and ease the initial transition from one home to two.
Amato, P.R. (1996). Explaining the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family.
Glenn, N. (2001). Is the current concern about American marriage warranted? Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law, 5–47.
Harris, J.R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Free Press.
Lansford, Jennifer E. (2011). Parental Divorce and Children’s Adjustment. Perspectives on Psychological Science.